Steven Spielberg used to make movies you love. He now makes movies you admire. There's a difference.
Even today, any video montage of Spielberg's filmography includes a Great White champing Roy Scheider's chum, little Henry Thomas furiously pedaling his bike across the moon, Harrison Ford fleeing a rolling boulder and a T. rex's dilating pupil. The quality adult entertainments among his recent credits, like Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal, barely seem to register, and the less said about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the better.
The evolution in Spielberg's filmmaking is not a matter of competence but rather perspective. It's notable enough that Lincoln and Munich—both screenplays written by Tony Kushner—are Spielberg's best films since Saving Private Ryan. What's intriguing is considering how the biopic he delivers today might differ from the one the director of E.T. would have made 30 years ago, or even 11 years ago when DreamWorks first acquired the film rights to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's then-unpublished biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
What might the Spielberg who produced Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., with themes of a distant or absentee father mirroring Spielberg's longtime estrangement from his own dad, have done with the often tenuous relationships between Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his own sons, including eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a college student who is desperate to don a uniform. Or how would the Spielberg who made The Color Purple have chronicled slavery and the plight of blacks during the Civil War? Today, Spielberg has reconciled with his father, and his cinematic idealism has been tempered by age and a better, perhaps bitter understanding of the world.
Lincoln confines itself to the final two chapters of Goodwin's book, which cover the effort to pass the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery through a lame-duck House of Representatives during January 1865, shortly after Lincoln's re-election. Spielberg focuses on the political process, the fractured forces both propelling and obstructing the passage of this landmark amendment, using this as a springboard into Lincoln's moral fortitude, political aptitude and private torments.
As the still-bloody Civil War is winding down, the Confederacy is actually the least of Lincoln's political predicaments. His resolute commitment to pass the 13th Amendment—and the thorny moral, legal and economic motives behind it—is undercut by factions both inside and outside his Republican party. Even sans any representatives from the seceded states, the amendment's passage is being blocked by Democrats fiercely opposed to the president. Meanwhile, the conservative wing of the Republican Party, through their spokesman Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), believe the fight over the amendment will undermine their principal goal of negotiating peace with the Confederacy and ending the four-year war. So-called Radical Republicans, abolitionists led by Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), mistrust Lincoln and believe his cautiousness has inhibited more sweeping societal revolution. Even members of Lincoln's cabinet fret that the fight to secure passage is a quixotic distraction that jeopardizes the president's popularity.
What follows is a revealing insight into the horsetrading and skullduggery that's always been grist for the political mill. Opponents to the amendment blast its supporters with the vilest of invectives, delivering fire-breathing speeches on the House floor that would be branded both anachronistic and melodramatic if Kushner didn't largely lift them from the official record. In order to achieve their desired outcome, Lincoln and his consigliere, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), basically buy votes by doling out patronage to outgoing Democrats and strong-arming those with teetering positions. To do this dirty work, Seward employs a motley, comic trio (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes), who essentially act as the 19th-century precursors to Nixon's "plumbers."
In recent times, two of the most beaten Oscar paths have been: a) portrayals of historical figures, and b) being Daniel Day-Lewis. Nevertheless, Day-Lewis' performance here is monumental, wholly capturing both the grandeur and frailties of the man. Abe Lincoln exhibits acute awareness of when a folksy story can be more effective than a soaring stem-winder, and Day-Lewis delivers both with equal aplomb. His Lincoln is cloaked in certitude about his convictions, but also he is battered from battles both professional and personal, including grief at the 1862 death of son Willie, his reluctance to permit Robert to join the army and the tumultuous relationship with his shrewd but haunted wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field, more than equal to the task). The measured gait, lissome gestures and reedy voice Day-Lewis adopts are more than historical reproduction. They lift Lincoln off Mount Rushmore and make him mortal, forging an emotional connection with the audience and salvaging Spielberg's ever-hovering penchant for schmaltzy grandeur. Indeed, composer John Williams' plaintive trumpet or piano intrudes into more than a few poignant moments; a far bolder but intriguing option would have been to not score the film at all, save opening and closing anthems.
A glimpse of brutal hand-to-hand combat opens the film, but Spielberg never provides a lengthier battle scene that would have illustrated the bloody burden weighing on Lincoln as well as visual context for the conservative Republicans' peace-first position. And personally, I regret that one of cinema's greatest auteurs didn't exercise the opportunity to re-create one of American history's seminal events, Lincoln's assassination.
But these are quibbles with an otherwise lofty yet remarkably restrained epic. Lincoln accomplishes the seemingly irreconcilable feat of humanizing Abraham Lincoln while preserving his mythology. It's a portrait—and a man—worthy of being both loved and admired.
This article appeared in print with the headline "White men in winter."