Throughout his storied career, Steven Spielberg has thrilled us with shark attacks, alien encounters, and adventurers like Indiana Jones. He has also presented great moments in history to more people than any teacher or text book. Of course, his films like SCHINDLER'S LIST, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and MUNICH are his interpretations of history. His extraordinary talent as a director of action, emotional acting, and inspiring propaganda has few matches in film history. Yet there are detractors who fault Spielberg for his sentimentality (E.T., HOOK) and his occasional lapses into populism (the JURASSIC PARK series).
In his new film LINCOLN, Spielberg tackles one of the most legendary and loved figures in American history. I had qualms about how the great man would be portrayed by Spielberg. In the film's first sequence, Lincoln is shown in an aura of shadowy lighting talking with young white and black soldiers in the field. They revere the great man and quote the Gettysburg address, as John Williams' worshipful music lifts to a crescendo. Too much? Perhaps, but it's pure Spielberg, and it works. This sequence sets up the rest of the film as Lincoln attempts to live up to the expectations of these soldiers, slaves, and all who support the Union.
So, is LINCOLN a review of the president's last days before his assassination with a series of frozen tableaux of his achievements? Not at all. Instead Spielberg and his screen writer Tony Kushner (ANGELS IN AMERICA) concentrate on the passing of the 13th Amendment which would outlaw slavery for all time in America. Director and writer tread that fine line between suspense and didacticism, a line most history teachers know well. And they succeed beyond our expectations. A bevy of great actors power the furious debate in the House of Representatives. David Strathairn, who masterfully portrayed Edward R. Murrow in GOOD LUCK, AND GOOD NIGHT, is Secretary of State William Seward, a brilliant politician and true friend and advisor to Lincoln. Sally Field is Mary Lincoln and gives the part a mixture of spite and loving devotion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's oldest son, James Spader as a Republican "activist," and the venerable Hal Holbrook as a party leader all give first-rate performances. But Tommy Lee Jones as radical Thaddeus Stevens lifts the debate in the House to hilarious levels with his blunt but truthful characterizations of his Democrat opponents.
But the film's impact rests on the shoulders of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, and he gives the part a subtle mixture of homespun wit, humility, anger, and political savvy. What makes this version of the Lincoln legend so relevant to our congressional quagmire today? This film is about politics, good, bad, and ugly, and Abe Lincoln is right in the middle of the fight. He buys votes, hires amoral lobbyists, and persuades defeated incumbents with job appointments. But his goal is one of the greatest in American history, freedom from slavery.
Spielberg, Kushner, and Day-Lewis and their associates have created a document of living history that calls its viewers to many levels--suspense, character, and a love of history. Very few films can claim the like.