Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’

Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is not a great film, and people shouldn’t feel muscled, in the general approbation, into saying it is. But it’s a good one, which is always a surprise and delight these days, and it is good it’s being so widely appreciated. This is Hollywood taking history seriously, taking political history seriously, and even showing respect for politics itself. That should be encouraged.

The film has a dark palette. Spielberg got a little carried away with Victorian darkness, when even then they had a sun. The period detail, how people dressed and rooms looked, is exquisite, and must have cost a lot. The direction is somber, maybe heavy and slow. Sometimes when Spielberg is trying to show he’s serious it’s an awkward thing to witness. The screenplay seems like chunks of a longer and maybe better work that had to be edited down and jammed into a reasonable run- time. There is a lot of one-speech-after-another, one-bit-of-jammed-in-exposition-after-another. But the script meets the challenge of communicating, as theatrically as possible, complex political calculations that couldn’t be shown and had to be spoken.

It feels churlish to be critical because the film tries so hard to be big in the best sense, to be a contribution to our civic life and to our understanding of ourselves as a nation.

The acting, as you’ve heard, is powerful. Daniel Day-Lewis is pretty wonderful. What is most remarkable is the look—the thick, rough hair, the hollow cheeks and kindly, abstracted air. It’s clear Day-Lewis studied the Mathew Brady sittings from Lincoln’s last months, when he no longer cared to look stern and dignified and instead allowed himself to look like what he was, a person operating at a certain benign remove.

Much has been said of Lincoln’s voice in the film. It struck me as good, in line with historical descriptions and right for a man of Lincoln’s height and build. Actually the voice is not that different from Henry Fonda’s in John Ford’s 1939 classic, “Young Mr. Lincoln.” Day-Lewis uses a fuller, more mature version of that voice. Most movingly, Day-Lewis seems to have mastered Lincoln’s physical presence, how he held himself and moved. He was a strong man but not a straight-backed, formal one. In her memoir, Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker, describes Mr. Lincoln throwing himself on the couch, picking up books and reading aloud. He often slouched and slumped, like someone who even physically didn’t have to prove his power.

But Day-Lewis really got Lincoln’s walk, or at least the way it’s been reported and described in the histories. Lincoln didn’t walk with the usual spring, but with the whole foot coming down at once. He had an odd, awkward gait, part shuffle, part soft stomp. I’ve never seen a theory for why he moved like that, so here’s mine: Lincoln didn’t learn to walk on streets, roads or lanes, he learned to walk in the wilderness on paths cut through woods. He learned to walk over rough roots jutting out of the ground, over rocks, through greasy mud. Truly, nobody paved the way for him. He got in the habit of placing his foot down flat so he wouldn’t be tripped up or lose his balance, and the habit followed him through life. In the film, as he clomps out of the White House for the last time, on his way to Ford’s Theatre, an usher watches him leave, with his funny walk. The way he watches him, as if he’s seeing for the first time the true size of Lincoln’s singularity, is moving.

If everyone goes see this film with a young person (about 12 or over), the young will get a history lesson that will help them understand America better and appreciate it more, and the old will have been entertained and encouraged Hollywood on more helpful paths. That would be good.