Most biopics are, at best, average films — anchored by great performances, but undermined by conventional and unimaginative filmmaking. And yet I’ve always had a soft spot for the biopic. I almost always learn something from these films, and even the most mediocre ones generally inspire me to read more about the subject of the movie I’ve just watched.
I was pleased to discover that the new Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln” is a very good biopic — one of the best of recent years. Like all biopics, “Lincoln” has its flaws, but what’s good about the film is really, really good, and very much worth seeing and thinking about.
The movie’s greatest accomplishment is its earthy portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. Here is a Lincoln who feels like a real man rather than simply a revered historical figure or some kind of saintly politician. I was actually kind of amazed by how well the film conveyed what it might have been like to listen to Lincoln tell a story, or sit on his cabinet, or serve on the White House staff. He always comes across as the smartest person in the room, deeply committed to saving the union and ending slavery, but acutely aware of the compromises that are needed to accomplish his goals. We see him as a husband and father who still grieves the loss of his son and struggles to deal with his difficult wife. This Lincoln is funny, shrewd, sad, tired, talkative and observant. One of the movie’s best images depicts him striding down a corridor, alone. In a weird way, the film makes it both easy and difficult to relate to him. He was obviously a man of great intelligence and gifts, but one who found himself worn down by the demands of his job and domestic life. Credit, of course, should go to Daniel Day-Lewis, for his amazing portrayal of the 16th president.
One of the reasons “Lincoln” works well is because it doesn’t strive to tell the entire story of Lincoln’s life. The film focuses on the final months of his life, specifically the passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery. We learn why Lincoln felt it was necessary to pass the amendment before the Civil War ended, and the obstacles he faced in doing so; if nothing else, the film serves as a primer for why cutting deals and backroom wheeling and dealing are an essential part of politics.
In a way, “Lincoln” is about the legislative process, which is a bold directorial choice. Most people aren’t interested in seeing how the sausage, so to speak, gets made, and Spielberg and Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, revel in such unsightly details. We see Republican party operatives offering lame-duck Democrats patronage jobs in exchange for supporting the bill, secret meetings and Secretary of State William Seward (an Auburn, N.Y., native, played by David Strathairn) sarcastically offering to dispatch slimy political hacks from Albany to do Lincoln’s dirty work. Lincoln, we learn, faces opposition from the Democrats, who opposed the amendment, but also from suspicious pro-abolitionist Republicans, who don’t feel he is as fully committed to equal rights for blacks as he should be. This radical faction is headed up by Thaddeus Stevens, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones in a wonderful performance.
“Lincoln” succeeds on almost every level. It has a terrific script, which is good, because this is a very talky movie, with a lot of speechifying and conversation and storytelling from Lincoln. (Did Lincoln tell this many stories in real life? And did his associates grow sick of it? One of my favorite scenes depicted one of his cabinet members stomping out of the room, declaring that he was sick of listening to Lincoln tell stories.) The cast is uniformly excellent — James Spader, as a slimy Republican operative, deserves special mention, as do Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Strathairn, Hal Holbrook as influential Republican Francis Preston Blair and Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens.
“Lincoln” is a long movie, but it’s never boring, even the more drawn-out scenes, such as the one depicting the actual vote on the 13th Amendment, are interesting. Today ending slavery seems like a no-brainer, but the film helps make it clear how difficult it was to get Congress to do the right thing.
“Lincoln’s” main flaw lies in its portrayal, or lack thereof, of black people. By focusing on the legislative process, Spielberg basically tells the story of the end of slavery through the actions and words of white people; black people are portrayed as the passive beneficiaries of a Congressional vote, rather than people who advocated and fought for their own freedom. The movie does provide hints that there’s more to the story: We see Mary Todd sitting in the balcony of the House of Representatives with her servant, Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), and there’s an interesting scene where Lincoln’s son Tad asks Lincoln’s butler, William Slade, whether he was beaten when he was a slave. (Slade replies that he was born a free man, and Keckley explains that she was born a slave, and was beaten as a child.) However, it would have been nice to see these characters play more of a role in the film, and a New York Times piece (click here) by the historian Kate Masur suggests that Spielberg missed an opportunity. After reading her piece, I agree with her: I had no idea that Washingon, D.C., was home to a large community of fugitive slaves, or that Keckley and Slade were leaders in the local black community, and it would have been nice to see some of that reflected in the film.
That said, “Lincoln” does a lot of things right. Before this film, I wasn’t all that interested in Lincoln, or the Civil War, and after the film I went online and read about the events depicted in the movie. Of course, even a bad biopic probably would have aroused my curiosity. But this is a very good one, and people will likely be talking and thinking about it for a long time.
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