Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner
The American political system is hopelessly fractured. Its legislators are viciously divided on how to govern the nation. The president, about to begin his second term in office on a groundswell of grassroots public support, is either too much or not enough of a pragmatist, depending on who you ask. He leans on his advisors when he needs to, but is driven by his fierce intelligence and intense determination to do what he feels is right; in this case, that’s pushing through a country-changing bill through the House of Representatives, dominated loudly by his opposition. Still, he can deliver one hell of a speech when he needs to. Though it applies in many ways to President Barack Obama and the health care bill that’s dominated Western culture for the last few years, this description is specific to the events of Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln, about the final months of America’s most beloved president. Parallels to the present day aside, Lincoln is an inspiring and thoroughly entertaining examination of how the political process worked nearly 150 years ago.
Daniel Day-Lewis is, as anyone would imagine, excellent as Abraham Lincoln, a figure whose importance goes beyond words. Day-Lewis does look disturbingly like Honest Abe, but the transformation extends to his voice, pitched in a higher register to match with historical documentation of what this great orator sounded like, as well as his stooped gait. Unlike his powerhouse Oscar-winning turn in There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis is more internal here, more than able to make thinking look compelling. Watching Lincoln fight tooth and nail to get the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified, thus abolishing slavery and helping the Civil War between the Union and the Confederacy come to a swift close, is both a genuinely enjoyable history lesson and surprisingly…well, fun.
Lincoln has innumerable strengths, but the frequent lightness of the script by Tony Kushner (based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals) may be the most important of all. If only because historical biopics often have a dearth of humor, it’s shocking that Lincoln is brimming with such levity. Even the president has a few moments of comedy, despite the weighty burden on his shoulders. Tommy Lee Jones, as staunch abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, though, provides an unexpected wealth of comic relief. If you’re aware of Jones’ well-publicized unwillingness to suffer fools gladly in his encounters with the press, you’ll know that he’s exceptionally well-cast as a man who had a similar lack of patience in his fellow man, especially the weak-willed ones. Though Lincoln often feels like it’s split in two—Lincoln’s personal struggle to maintain peace in the Union, and the attempt of Radical Republicans to convince enough Democrats to vote to abolish slavery—it never feels unfocused. And frankly, the latter storyline is filled with wit and enormously engaging, thanks to Jones and other actors like James Spader, who dives into his role as a Republican operative with brio.
With a cast that only grows bigger as the film progresses, it’s hard to highlight one actor or another, as everyone’s work is, at worst, solid and, at best, superlative. Sally Field plays Lincoln’s wife; the scenes where Abraham and Mary face off are among the most intense and bitter, hinting at a darkness in Lincoln’s soul some may not be aware of. A movie directed by Steven Spielberg about Abraham Lincoln would be, presumably, a near-deification of this public figure, but the arguments Lincoln has with his wife about whether or not their eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) should fight for the Union or stay out of harm’s way present them both as flawed and human. David Strathairn, as Secretary of State William Seward, is also given a meaty supporting role, again emphasizing Lincoln’s humanity, warts and all. And fans of a number of buzzworthy cable shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Deadwood, and Boardwalk Empire will be thrilled to see David Costabile, Jared Harris, John Hawkes, and Michael Stuhlbarg, respectively, pop up at various points. (Though he’s least well-known, Costabile, once the karaoke aficionado/meth chef on Breaking Bad, has the most to do as a colleague of Stevens’ and is a delight.) If there is a weak link, it’s Gulliver McGrath as Lincoln’s youngest son, Tad. Lincoln’s patriarchal past haunts him throughout, or so we’re told. Partly because it seems less important than the nationwide tasks at hand, and because McGrath’s work is slightly too precocious, Tad as a character represents an unformed distraction in a mostly tightly crafted piece of filmmaking.
Spielberg, America’s great sentimentalist, manages to incorporate familiar themes, such as fathers whose methods warp their children and themselves, without bogging down in them. And unlike the sluggish historical drama Amistad, Lincoln never feels overly self-important or portentous. Considering the topic at hand, and how it relates to the modern world, it’s impressive that Spielberg didn’t get ensnared in this tangle again. Lincoln looks appropriately dreary, contrasting the ideals of what a country should be versus its actual appearance. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski doesn’t overload us with lens flares, as is his wont, aiming for a stately, simple point of view that gets across the titanic importance of what Lincoln and his fellow politicians accomplished in the early months of 1865 without hammering it over the audience’s collective head.
When it was first announced, an Abraham Lincoln biography directed by America’s most recognizable director and starring one of the world’s preeminent thespians, Lincoln sounded like an automatic slam-dunk. Daniel Day-Lewis’ level of quality here is almost dull, if only because how could he not be emotional and fierce? How could this not be another of his monumentally brilliant performances? The shock, then, isn’t that Lincoln is a good film, or even a great one. Nor is it that the film respects its subjects but acknowledges their flaws. The surprise is that Lincoln avoids the pitfalls of many historical films. The story of Abraham Lincoln, in any form, is inspiring. Lincoln, through its warmth, intelligence, comedy, and honesty, earns that inspiration.
— Josh Spiegel