With Lincoln, Steven Spielberg and company have given us one of the best films of 2012. It is a gentle and measured film, not grand and triumphant even in its moments of victory. Should Spielberg take home a golden statuette come March, I’m sure we can expect him to do so without any “king of the world” type grandstanding. Lincoln reveals that the filmmaker and his team, like their historical subject, are confident enough to be humble.
Lincoln begins by giving its audience Lincoln the monument, imposingly seated, obscured in shadow, and grand. Then the camera swings around to reveal Abraham Lincoln the man, sitting simply on a wooden platform, his feet in the mud, conversing with soldiers of the lowest rank.
The movie is full of this kind of invisible and effective movie-making, the kind of craft that comes from years and years of practice. Watching the movie, I was most reminded of the recent music of Paul Simon, a musician so practiced, his skill seems effortless, his songs seem simple, and his genius is easy to mistake for child-like play. All of Lincoln is as good as the most heralded moments from Spielberg’s early career.
Lincoln is a dusty, quiet, darkly lit film that feels like it has arrived from a time before concrete covered everything, a time before recorded sound and electric lights. It is an earthy movie with an earthy Lincoln who, instead of delivering emblematic speeches to vast crowds, visits hospitals, entertains common citizens in his office, and lays on the floor in the evening with his young son.
Instead of the Lincoln of legend with booming voice and great resolve – the “Great Emancipator” robed in a long, black, cape-like coat and crowned with that symbolic stove-pipe hat – Spielberg has given us Lincoln the folk hero. This is a man who rose from poverty to the presidency, who was self-taught and more clever than he was commanding.
Spielberg’s depiction of Abraham Lincoln embodies the right held most dear by America, the right Americans have gradually extended to everyone regardless of race, gender, creed, or origin – the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our 16th president is proof that anyone can rise, and he is a promise that once risen, one will extend that opportunity to others and sacrifice his or her life to perpetuate the society that granted him or her those opportunities.
The film’s chief value is self-sacrifice in the form of compromise. In Lincoln, those who compromise succeed, and those who refuse to compromise fail. It is this sort of sacrifice that enables Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves, end the war, and sustain the nation.
Other characters, from Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens to James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson’s political manipulators to each of the conservative congressmen who eventually vote to approve the 13th amendment to Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, who gets to serve in the military but not anywhere near the fighting, similarly opt to let go of their smaller passions in favor of the greater good.
Like the man it depicts, Spielberg’s film is successful because of its restraint. Where it could be grand and domineering, it is, instead, kind and suggestive. Spielberg compromises his typical cinematic style, putting the story ahead of himself and letting the history carry the narrative instead of his usual brand of movie magic tricks. Compare Lincoln to last year’s War Horse, a film I enjoyed, but a film also whose saturated sentimentality would have seemed maudlin in Lincoln. (War Horse is a children’s story and bears saccharinity. Lincoln is movie for adults.)
Compromise isn’t a value often lauded in American society, but it is the value on which our society most depends. We are an increasingly diverse nation in all segments, and for all of us to get along, we must find common ground in every case. And finding common ground means giving up some of the ground on which we are standing.
We succeed as a nation if we compromise, and if Lincoln takes home any awards this year, it will be because it does the same. It is restrained when it could be pushy and sacrificial when it could be overbearing.