The following is the first draft of a critique of the film Lincoln which I wrote for a cinema class at Regent University.
Steven Spielberg has fashioned a film of tremendous historical import and timeless, masterful artistry. The film envelopes the viewer in the story with its density of pertinent plot points, meaningful imagery, emotional performances, and incredible attention to detail as a legitimate period piece depicting the final months of the life President Lincoln and his political battle to both end slavery and end the Civil War.
Lincoln has been well-received by critics, scoring a positive review from 145 critics, a 91 percent rate, according to the website Rotten Tomatoes. Claudia Puig of the USA Today gave it three and a half stars out of four, calling it “an absorbing intellectual look at the political machinations involved in abolishing slavery,” adding that Tony Kushner’s script is “perfectly-calibrated.”
The film begins with the sounds and images of a brutal battle in the American Civil War. Soldiers from the North and South are depicted in hand-to-hand combat on a mud-soaked battlefield. Within seconds, Spielberg has captured the ugliness that is war, particularly a Civil War that pits fellow countrymen against each other. The first image we see of President Abraham Lincoln himself is an over-the-shoulder shot that captures his slumping figure, looking out upon a Union camp. Immediately we see that this man of impressive physical and historical stature has become weary and frail yet still seems to tower above it all like a mythic figure.
Lincoln narrates a dream sequence in which the sixteenth President is upon a ship racing at high speeds to an unknown destination. Mrs. Lincoln suggests that this has something to do with his pursuit of the Thirteenth Amendment, but one wonders if it doesn’t have more to do with Lincoln’s impending death and reaching the shores of Heaven; or, perhaps it is suggesting that Lincoln is leader of a nation that was racing quickly toward the shore of freedom and equality for all.
The lighting in the film seems realistic yet strangely surreal, with dim light in several interior scenes where the only lighting would have been fire-related, like candles and oil lamps. Often, the frame contains smoke imagery from the cigars of politicians and bureaucrats, recalling the smoke-filled battlefields of the Cvil War with its cannons and gunfire.
As Anthony Lane writes in The New Yorker, “Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s cinematographer, veils events in such a rarefied and sifted haze that they seem already poised halfway to myth. Just look at the President, haloed and framed against a window, in semi-silhouette, as he sits in a rocking chair reading to his young son Tad . They could be in a picture book themselves.”
Lincoln’s son studies photographs of slaves by flickering orange firelight, recalling images of the Holocaust. Other than the orange glows from candles and fires, muted and cool greens, grays and blues seem to dominate the picture, contributing to the cold atmosphere of nineteenth century winters in Washington. Lincoln is often shown with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. His top hat aptly becomes a character of its own in the movie, often garnering close-ups.
Equality becomes a central theme in the movie, as it is traditionally understood (equality in terms of personhood). Thaddeus Stevens asserts before Congress that he holds all men be “equal before the law.” The very first scene with Lincoln depicts him speaking with a pair of African-American Union officers, one of which is boiling over with the frustration of slow progress in attaining economic equality in the eyes of white men. The man’s frustration is righteous, but Lincoln could do little about the prejudice in the hearts of men, and he says as much: “I suppose that they will learn to tolerate each other.” Spielberg’s Lincoln acknowledges that with time and limited government action, the nation could be united wherein men of all skin colors could enjoy equal liberties as well as associate with each other without reservation or prejudice.
In another scene, Lincoln tells two men that he used to read a lot as a young man, and he brings up Euclid’s rule that “Things which equal the same thing also equal one another.” Lincoln seems to be saying that if both a black man and a white man are human, then they are equal. Thaddeus Stevens later makes the argument that he may look at another man and think him an idiot or full of corruption, but that does not make him any less human. Lincoln therefore makes both moral and logical arguments for the Thirteenth Amendment and irrationality of slavery built on racial prejudice.
It is Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln, though, that truly mesmerizes the viewer. Lou Lumenick of The New York Post explains: “Adopting an odd, high-pitched voice, Day-Lewis thoroughly inhabits the part of a war-weary president who’s fond of telling long and folksy autobiographical stories.” Daniel Day-Lewis is so convincing and riveting as the most beloved political figure in American history, that it is hard not to be completely enraptured by his authentic, layered, and moving portrayal of the often melancholy, introspective, self-deprecating, somewhat peculiar, thoroughly human, yet passionate and attention-commanding figure.
In an interview Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Lincoln’s older son Robert, even remarked that he did not actually meet the actor Day-Lewis until after filming for the movie had wrapped; apparently, the Academy Award-winning actor never broke character during production of the film. Daniel Day-Lewis may have been the only actor on the planet who could have delivered the gravitas to the character of Abraham Lincoln in such a thoroughly engrossing way.
Another accomplished actor receiving Oscar buzz is Tommy Lee Jones, who is witty, cantankerous, and sincere as the passionate abolitionist Representative Thaddeus Stevens. However, there were no weak links in the entire massive cast; every actor seemed to realize the importance of the film, however small his or her role might be.
The subtle parallels drawn between the final months of Abraham Lincoln and the final days of Jesus Christ are striking. The character of General Ulysses S. Grant tells Lincoln that he looks to have aged ten years in the past year. Throughout the film, Lincoln is depicted as a man under incredible stress and suffering, as if he bears the pains of a nation in Civil War; as if he bears the weight of every fallen American and the tortuous life of every black man still in slavery—as if he were carrying a cross. Even his family life is anything but ideal.
Like the story of Job in the Bible, Lincoln’s wife is represented as unsupportive, divisive, and angry, if not mentally unstable as some historians suggest. We learn that the child they lost still weighs heavy on his heart. His older son is portrayed as constantly pestering Lincoln to allow him to join the army, and Lincoln faces the prospect of both losing another child as well as inviting his wife’s further rage. This suffering is similar to the turmoil that was apparently going on with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, as well as his physical and spiritual torture leading up to and including his crucifixion.
Just as Mrs. Lincoln says, “No one has ever been so loved by the people;” but perhaps no one had ever been so hated by those among the Confederates. This is yet another similarity with Christ, because Jesus was and is to this day loved and worshipped by His followers, yet was hated enough that he was brutally tortured and killed and is still hated to this day.
In the scene directly preceding Lincoln’s assassination, he says, “I guess it’s time to go, though I’d rather stay.” This obvious double meaning is then followed by his discarding of his gloves, which the black butler retrieves. The black butler then watches as Lincoln and his famous hat are framed in silhouette by a window, as he descends down a staircase out of sight. There seems to be a good deal of symbolism going on in this brief sequence. Lincoln is both leaving this life behind, descending into the grave, a mysterious and legendary man. Historically, Lincoln is known for his dislike of wearing gloves, but there seems to be more to the moment, as if Lincoln was passing the torch to black men and women. Perhaps the moment is indicating that Lincoln’s fight is over, and he is leaving those that he freed to now possess the power to continue the fight themselves. Indeed, the film suggests that the fight to come will be difficult for black people, a likely allusion to the persecution leading up until and through the Civil Rights Movement. Again, this seems to be yet another parallel with Christ, recalling His charge to the disciples, that they might further His mission though they would be persecuted for His sake.
The visual image of Lincoln being cloaked in black from head to toe, except for his hands, also seems to be an allusion to Christ in which He took on the sins of the world so that the world might live and be free. Likewise, Lincoln figuratively took on the sins of a nation—the sins of slavery and violence—by giving his life, both literally and figuratively, so that the slaves might live; so that the words of the Declaration of Independence might be fulfilled: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Just as Christ was killed on a cross, the last image of the film is a shot depicting Lincoln’s second inaugural address in which he is holding his arms out, palms outward, for an extended moment, recalling Christ hanging on the cross before a multitude of onlookers.
Lincoln is truly masterful filmmaking, thick with rich imagery and themes that remain relevant even until today and will likely remain relevant for generations to come. Steven Spielberg celebrates and honors a legendary and heroic man who is loved and revered, perhaps more than any other American historical figure. Indeed, the film is worthy of the man it depicts. As the film transitions from Lincoln’s deathbed to his inaugural address, the man is framed in the flame of a candle, perhaps signifying that the words and work of Abraham Lincoln will continue to burn on as an eternal flame, a light that shines for our nation and nations around the world.