It's the voice that gets you.
On first acquaintance, it hits a lot of people as wrong. We've seen so many Abe Lincolns on screens of various sizes that, whether we like it or not, we have fairly rigid ideas of what he sounded like.
Raymond Massey, probably, as he was in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” full of vocal sonority that matched the plain, prairie power of the words. Or Henry Fonda, in John Ford's great “Young Mr. Lincoln,” described by Ford as “a jack-legged young lawyer from Springfield.”
Here is Devin McKinney's description of Fonda as Lincoln in his excellent, recently published Fonda biography “The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda” (St. Martin's Press, 428 pages, $29.99): “Seldom have movies achieved, through makeup or miracle, so arresting a combination of attributes as this, so bizarre and fixating a meld of physical actor and imaginative presence. The face is Lincoln's; the voice is Fonda's.”
Exactly. Which is why Fonda in “Young Mr. Lincoln” will always be immortal in American film. But Lincoln's voice from contemporary descriptions was something else: higher than our vocal archetypes, more nasal, softer.
And that's what gives Daniel Day-Lewis tidal power before Steven Spielberg's big new film “Lincoln” is over.
You spend two-plus hours looking at Day-Lewis as a physical incarnation of Lincoln – ridiculously tall and skinny, all 6 foot 4 inches of him in 19th century black (three inches taller than Day-Lewis really is), topped off by that stovepipe hat adding about six more inches.
But we've seen so many other actors who looked like Lincoln. He is, quite literally, an American icon. Lincoln exists in the American imagination. Almost any attentive pretense at a resemblance persuades us for a while.
Even the sneakily serious “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” – which paid a surprising amount of biographical attention to our 16th president for a film of such humble, comic book origins – gave us long, lanky Benjamin Walker as a suitably apt apparition of Lincoln.
But it's the voice that gets you. It's the voice that puts Day-Lewis' portrayal of Lincoln up there with Massey's and Fonda's in crucial ways. It's the high, soft voice we've been told about, as full of the Midwest as Fonda's but always seeming to seek new low volumes of maximum conversational intimacy.
At the same time, all that vocal sweetness doesn't prohibit Day-Lewis from oratorical conviction. Nor does it prevent him from displaying mountainous anger as he plays Lincoln in his final months in office, preoccupied with getting the 13th Amendment to the Constitution through the House of Representatives so that slavery would be forever prohibited in America.
And that's what makes Spielberg's “Lincoln” unlike any other Lincoln film you've ever seen. It is impossible on screen to give us a Lincoln entirely without echoes of all those other Lincolns we've always known from movies, TV and books to the very pennies in our pockets.
But this isn't a Fordian folk-tale Lincoln, this is an attempt at a historical Lincoln based on a small section of Doris Kearns Goodwin's “Team of Rivals.” (A book President Obama supposedly used to spur him on to asking Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state, just as former Lincoln rival William Seward had been Lincoln's.)
Spielberg's historical “Lincoln” is in earnest. It's a film about political process, 19th century style – the uphill 1865 struggle to get enough votes in the House of Representatives to ratify the constitutional amendment that would do for all time in America what Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation could only do during the actual duration of the Civil War.
In one of the most startling scenes in the movie, the screenplay by Tony Kushner – the playwright who gave the world a convincing Roy Cohn in “Angels in America” – presents us with the former “jack-legged young lawyer from Springfield” explaining in full the legalities of why a constitutional amendment could do for good what the Emancipation Proclamation, for all its landmark drama, could only do provisionally.
Lincoln's explanation is very lawyerly and bound to be an inch or two over the heads of a lot of the audience. But then so is a small but decidedly stubborn part of a screenplay very attentive to the small details of American legislative process in 1865.
These may be Spielberg's John Ford years as a movie director (Spielberg's last film “War Horse” was the most Fordian film he ever made and as much a clear-cut Oscar bid as “Lincoln”), but he seems determined to give you a film where you can almost smell the fires in the White House fireplaces; the dusty, unlaundered suits of congressmen; the snifters of brandy on the table and the cigars of Secretary of State William Seward (played with worldly panache by David Strathairn).
Spielberg's “Lincoln” is just as attentive to the pungent aromas of 1865 legislative maneuvering, with a decidedly funky trio of lobbyists running around Washington trying to buy crucial lame duck Democratic votes with low-ball job offers. (Why buy a vote with a postmaster general post when you can get the job with a lowly local postmaster position?)
The trio of grubby vote buyers is led by a bloated-looking James Spader in a small performance as convincingly corrupt as Day-Lewis is convincingly shrewd and noble in the film's central performance.
Herman Melville famously observed that to write a great book you need a mighty theme. Obviously, Spielberg believes a cinematic version of it. Few films these days are as self-evidently ambitious – and therefore as blatantly Oscar-bait – as Spielberg's “Lincoln.”
There are extraordinary moments in it – noble ones, heart-rending ones, harrowing ones (Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's son Robert watching Army hospital orderlies moving a wheelbarrow of blood-dripping amputated limbs out of the hospital to dump it into a giant pit of discarded body parts behind the building).
The movie yearns to be great. It is almost desperate to be as important a film about its subject as Spielberg's “Schindler's List” is forever likely to be about the Holocaust (to name another film that clearly came from the books in Spielberg's library).
There's something heartening about such yearnings in our movie world, so full usually of demographic pandering and quick-kill box office that give us all manner of revenue-gobbling blockbusters with all the capacity of remaining in your memory as a lunchtime sandwich purchased from a vending machine.
And there is so much in “Lincoln” that equals Spielberg's ambitions – not just Day-Lewis' performance, which does the unprecedented thing of completely reinventing a cornerstone American icon, but in bits and pieces of surpassing eloquence (not just Lincoln's either) in Kushner's script.
Nor is Spielberg left out of the fulfillment of his own highest yearnings. Who is likely to forget a father as tender as Lincoln lying down next to his youngest son asleep in front of the fireplace, kissing him awake and then carrying him off to bed on his back?
This is the Lincoln we've long known about – the one who liked bathroom jokes and was good at telling them, the one who, at the same time, wrote some of the most beautiful and elevated prose in the American language for public occasions.
This is a film about the immense tactical cunning and naked power-wielding of a man devoted to society that would always provide freedom for “the better angels of our nature.” But for all that, I must confess there are things that miss – and miss broadly – in Spielberg's “Lincoln.”
For all the cleverness with which the film gives you, at the beginning, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the film's way of giving us his assassination is an errant bit of false cleverness that desperately needed rethinking.
In fact, the film's ending – which is brave enough to hallow those words which were the body and soul of his legacy – is so much less imaginative, even in content, than it should have been.
Among the film's personal triumphs is Tommy Lee Jones, playing the absurdly wigged and impassioned lifelong acid-dripping abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. And yet the climactic moment of what film people like to call “the big reveal” about the private circumstances of Stevens' public positions, is so self-consciously domestic that it's almost reductive, demeaning and fatuous.
We're constantly told by Sally Field – terrific as Mary Todd Lincoln with an eloquence of her own – that the American people love Lincoln.
But where are those, even in the North, who never warmed at all to the performing bumpkin from Illinois? Where are those roiling American poisons that always seem to be with us somewhere – the ones that finally, in a balcony of Ford's Theatre, put a fatal bullet into his head?
He wasn't just loved. He was hated, too, even more irrationally than he was loved.
“Lincoln” is a noble film. It wants to do great things – for its audience, for its own reputation. And it succeeds abundantly in doing both.
But it just isn't great enough, except in its extraordinary central performance by Day-Lewis.
Sergei Eisenstein wrote in 1945 that Ford's “Young Mr. Lincoln” – which he saw “on the eve of the world war” – contained the “womb of popular and national spirit” in America.
The kind of things that made movies the rivals of written history – and, most often, the purveyors of mythology that has triumphed over it.
Spielberg's illustrative “Lincoln” can't help but seem less than the Lincoln in books, most notably the Kearns Goodwin book that provided its earliest seed.
Except, of course, for Day-Lewis, who gives us that voice so strange and so unlike what we've ever heard before that we might have the eerie suspicion we'll be hearing it from now on as something that will suffice as Lincoln's own.
3 and 1/2 stars
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Gloria Reuben, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running time: 150 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and brutal Civil War battles and their gory consequences.
The Lowdown: The four months at the end of Abraham Lincoln's life in which the Great Emancipator knew he would need a constitutional amendment to end slavery.