While I don't have a full review, I was glad that Josh Spiegel invited on his podcast, Mousterpiece Cinema, to discuss the film (which is being co-released by Touchstone, which owns Disney, thus the inclusion). It's a long one, with Josh, his co-host Michael Ryan, and I batting around different ideas and perspectives on the film throughout. You can listen to it here, but since it's a bit long and some people are averse to the podcast form, I also posted the notes I worked from in our conversation below. But do take a listen.
This is something you see in a lot of Kushner plays—is this hyper-consciously aware myths being explored and extrapolated, and obviously as we’ll get into, this film is super aware of the partisanship moment being explored.
There are obvious parallels that drew Tony Kushner drew on like the fights over the Affordable Care Act and the Debt Ceiling Debate, and I don’t think the film offers easy answers on the idea of the Grand Compromise.
Spielberg here is working at a whole different level because he’s really going back to his major influence, John Ford, who obviously made his own Lincoln film. There’s a term I like to use called compositional density, which I mean every composition is filled with layers of power even if the shot is quite simply staged. And this film is all about shifts in power, and you see it every time Spielberg moves the camera, especially the push-ins. He knows how to frame a shot, really. This is like when Ford did Mogambo; it’s hyper aware of building each shot as part of a construction of a scene, and because Kushner’s film is built around scenes of people playing against each other, it’s inherently cinematic.
Dan Sallit, who’s a fantastic filmmaker, has a great quote I always think og: “Filming two people sitting in a room talking is the ultimate in cinema. There are no excuses, no crutches, no distractions to make you look like a better filmmaker than you are.” And Spielberg proves it here by creating what’s essentially a power fight.
And then you have that fantastic lighting by Janusz Kaminski, those sunlit smoky rooms where you can just feel how dense the air is in Washington, the intense feelings. I love when he goes for Lincoln in silhouette, and just isn’t afraid to show this man as myth. And then that shot near the end with Lincoln and his son entering the sunlight, it’s as if he is literally transcending into the myth he always wanted. Obvious? Yes. Still fantastic? You better believe it.
I think the key moment in this film, which sort of beautifully explains the complicated political allegory is building, is the character of Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones. There’s a scene where he’s giving a speech to the House of Representatives, and he’s been told he has to say he only supports legal racial equality instead of universal equality. Now that sounds backwards - why shouldn’t these men be doing the right thing by not going all the way? But the way Kushner and Spielberg present it, it’s this necessary compromise that will secure the future. This film posits pragmatism, not idealism.
I think so much of this film is built around a man who realizes and builds on his myth, but still has to contend with realities of real life, which is why I think the role of his son is so important, the one played by Joseph-Gordon Levitt. He has the same issue of trying to confront his mythology and how he will be remembered, which is why I think his story, and Lincoln’s acceptance of his desires, is really important and crucial to the narrative.
And yet this is an extremely pessimistic film about the consequences of political compromise. There are three crucial scenes after the passing of the bill: the first is with Thaddeus Stevens’s wife, in which we realize that even though the bill has been passed, their romance will still remain secret or disparaged for the rest of their lives. Secondly, there’s the breathtaking scene where Lincoln views the carnage outside Virginia, in which he sees what he had to sacrifice in order to pass the bill, and finally there’s the assassination scene, which I think is beautifully unique in using the boy instead of a scene at the theater. This is the ultimate political consequence of Lincoln’s actions.
And I really think the final moment; fire transition, is transcendent and reminds me in a lot of ways of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Here is a scene that really transcends itself to make a direct call to its audience, in hope that they can recognize the necessity of the grand compromise.
I think part of why Daniel-Day Lewis works so well is that he goes against our idea of Lincoln as a towering man. It’s very similar to the Walter Huston performance in Griffith’s Lincoln. He’s very soft spoken, and instead of towering you he’s charms you and sort of brings you closer and closer, and so when he needs to go big, you really feel it. There’s a perfect scene where he’s talking to a telegraph operator played by Adam Driver, and he gives this speech about Euclid and his first axiom. But I think it speaks to DDL’s power is that he gives it a casualness, and let’s Spielberg turn it into opera.
And then you have so many just character actors filling in so many shoes: David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Walton Goggins from Justified, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holobrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, John Hawkes…the list really goes on and on, but the important part is they all kind of slide into their roles.
It’s a very talky film, but Spielberg is just a genius with the camera. The lighting is wonderful, the movements of the camera are impeccable. You know Wodrow Wilson saw Birth of a Nation and said it was like writing history with lightning. That was all I could say after Lincoln is that it has an acute perception of history and its political moment. And this isn’t a film that shows politics. It realizes and theorizes on how politics functions.