Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’

8 Feb


Writing a political drama, for stage or screen, is notoriously difficult. For one thing, 95% of politics is interminable bureaucracy, and this hardly makes for edge-of-your-seat drama. For another, the language used by politicians is often very dull and/or evasive. How do you write political dialogue without it being as baffling as a foreign language movie without subtitles?

"I think that bald nun is asking Ming the Merciless if he'd rather play Cluedo."

“I think that bald nun is asking Ming the Merciless if he’d rather play Cluedo.”

When it’s done well, a political drama makes politics exciting. Aaron Sorkin’s work on The West Wing is a perfect illustration of this, wringing excellent, engaging drama from filibusters and the passing of bills, and when he left the show after its fourth season it really showed. Suddenly the dialogue was heavy with exposition, and the politics and the drama felt divorced from one another, so that the politics slowed the drama and the drama seemed pedestrian alongside the politics.

"But if we're not ready in time for the caucuses we'll have to... Wait. Are you snoring?"

“But if we’re not ready in time for the caucuses we’ll have to… Wait. Are you snoring?”

At the other end of the spectrum you have political dialogue that’s dumbed down to the point of being both trite and unconvincing. Here’s an example from the otherwise excellent Abi Morgan’s screenplay for The Iron Lady:

Michael Heseltine (to Geoffrey Howe): Your draft budget has been leaked, Geoffrey. They are baying for our blood.

Howe: Michael. You can’t simply buckle at the first sign of difficulty.

Heseltine: No-one is saying we have to buckle.

Jim Prior: But is this really the time to be making these spending cuts in the middle of one of the deepest recessions this country’s ever experienced?

Now, maybe it’s just me, but none of that sounds like something actual politicians would say. It’s too dramatic, the urgency of it sounds forced, and Jim Prior’s line is just syllable after syllable of info-dumping. This is dialogue that has been written for the benefit of those in the audience too ignorant, too young or too American to know anything about the context in which the scene is set.

"But Mrs Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1979 till 1990, the people are rioting against the poll tax, implemented in 1989 to replace house rates..."

“But Mrs Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1979 till 1990, the people are rioting against the poll tax, implemented in 1989 to replace house rates…”

With all this in mind, I didn’t know what to expect of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Spielberg is, in my opinion, the world’s greatest living film director. What he isn’t is the world’s greatest chooser of scripts. There was every chance that his Lincoln could have felt like a well-made, well-acted Hallmark channel biopic.

It’s a good thing, then, that he hired Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner (who also co-wrote Munich) to adapt Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It’s telling, too, that this is the book the film relies on most heavily, rather than a straight forward biography, because Lincoln is a very political film.

I don’t mean that it’s propaganda, as some borderline racist nutters would have you believe, or a hagiography, because it’s nothing of the sort. What I mean is that its primary concern is Lincoln’s politics, and how political machinations, both noble and – more often than not – a little sneaky and underhand helped pass the 13th Amendment.

I was expecting on-the-nose dialogue, sweeping shots of a CGI 1860s Washington, a stirring rendition of the Gettysburg address, and a hankies-at-the-ready climax at Ford’s Theater. I was pleasantly surprised that Spielberg delivers none of the above. This isn’t the US Civil War rewritten for twelve-year-olds. It’s a grownup film full of grownups talking about grownup things in a grownup manner. Though Lincoln’s sons Robert (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Tad are featured, and though Spielberg can’t resist exploring the tensions between father and son (as seen in just about every other film he’s ever made), this isn’t a White House soap opera. The 13th Amendment is the film’s main focus, with family dramas its occasional window dressing.

Of course, the main draw for a general audience isn’t Kushner’s script, or the 13th Amendment, or even Spielberg’s direction, but Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of the 16th President. It goes without saying that physically, it’s uncanny. About half way through the movie I could no longer form a mental picture of the real Lincoln. What’s most impressive, however, is the warmth and wit Day Lewis and Kushner invest in him. This isn’t the booming, stentorian and animatronic Lincoln you might have seen at Disneyland…

It's far too easy to imagine this thing going all 'Westworld'.

It’s far too easy to imagine this thing going all Westworld.

Day Lewis’s Lincoln is charismatic and charming. It’s easy to understand why people might ally themselves to his cause, but also why others would turn against him. Contrary to what many critics might say, the film doesn’t shy away from tackling the moral ambiguities of Lincoln’s presidency, the ways in which he trampled over the US constitution to realise his aims. More surprisingly still, it even hints at Lincoln’s mysterious sexuality, by having the President’s (male) secretary ask him if he would like “company” in the middle of the night. (Lincoln famously shared his bed with his bodyguard whenever Mrs Lincoln was out of town.) Okay, that may fly over most people’s heads, but if you know anything about Lincoln you’ll know, and that’s the important thing.

The supporting cast here are similarly impressive, with James Spader on particularly fine form. His Falstaffian lobbyist, William Bilbo, is hilarious and vaguely sinister in equal measure, and serves like a double espresso whenever he’s on screen. Elsewhere, Spielberg populates his film with fascinating and craggy faces, from Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens to Hal Holbrook’s Francis Preston Blair, and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński has a field day with this, shooting almost every scene as if it’s a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby.


Spielberg’s direction here is marvellously understated. I’m still not entirely sure about the way in which the assassination is handled. I would have, perhaps, preferred it had the film ended before Lincoln’s death, and the kind of double bluff of taking us to the theatre… except it’s a different theatre feels a little tasteless, a deliberate bid to surprise the audience where a surprise is neither wanted nor needed. Still, for the best part Spielberg relies not on trickery but on getting excellent performances from his cast, from letting the drama of the moment carry the scene rather than special effects or gimmicky editing.

If I have one more minor complaint – and it is very minor – it’s that Lincoln often feels a little stagy, as if we’re watching a filmed play rather than a film. Much of it is set in the dark and smoky backrooms of Washington, giving it a claustrophobic feel, so much so that it’s almost a breath of fresh air whenever the characters step outdoors… even when ‘outdoors’ means the corpse-strewn battlefield at Petersburg.

"Tell you the truth, boys, it's just nice to get out once in a while."

“Tell you the truth, boys, it’s just nice to get out once in a while.”

Still, this in itself feels like a brave decision, and I wonder if it’s a subconscious reaction, by Spielberg, against the computer-generated excesses of both Tintin and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. We can only live in hope that he’s a little sick of working with green screen. If Lincoln is evidence of him going back to basics, I’ll look forward to whatever he does next.


2 Responses to “Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’”

  1. SP ON February 9, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    URGENTLY relevant to realize, in 2013,
    that Spielberg, long a pruveyor of capstone
    cultural incest —–in this –who asked for it?
    13th? Hollywood Lincoln ——OMITS——-
    any refernce –ANY mention of the REAL
    Lincoln’s quite possibly —-FATAL—– diss
    of the Glbal USURY monopoly over finance
    of the war. . .

    • thedaillew February 9, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

      But that isn’t what the film is about. The film is about the passing of the 13th Amendment. Even the civil war, in this context, is the backdrop rather than the main subject (though, of course, it is tied to the main subject). I can understand why, in making a film that dramatises the known facts, Spielberg may have wanted to steer clear from the rumour and speculation of conspiracy theory. He isn’t Oliver Stone.

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