Hollywood's most successful director turns on a dime and delivers his most restrained, interior film. A celebrated playwright shines an illuminating light on no more than a sliver of a great man's life. A brilliant actor surpasses even himself and makes us see a celebrated figure in ways we hadn't anticipated. This is the power and the surprise of
This narrow focus has paradoxically enabled us to see Lincoln whole in a way a more broad-ranging film might have been unable to match. It has also made for a movie whose pleasures are subtle ones, that knows how to reveal the considerable
These things all begin, as thoughtful films invariably do, with an excellent script. A
Kushner has worked with Spielberg before (he co-wrote the Oscar-nominated "Munich" script) and his writing seems to bring out a level of restraint in their productions. There is nothing bravura or overly emotional about Spielberg's direction here, but the impeccable filmmaking is no less impressive for being quiet and to the point. The director delivers selfless, pulled-back satisfactions: he's there in service of the script and the acting, to enhance the spoken word rather than burnish his reputation.
The key speaker, obviously, is Day-Lewis. No one needs to be told at this late date what a consummate actor he is, but even those used to the way he disappears into roles will be startled by the marvelously relaxed way he morphs into this character and simply becomes Lincoln. While his heroic qualities are visible when they're needed, Day-Lewis' Lincoln is a deeply human individual, stooped and weary after four years of civil war but endowed with a palpable largeness of spirit and a genuine sense of humor.
At ease in his own skin, Lincoln wears a shawl around the White House like he was born with it and is so prone to telling tales at every opportunity that his fed-up Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (
Though Day-Lewis' work inevitably towers over "Lincoln," one of the remarkable things about this production is not only how consistently good the acting is across some 145 speaking roles but how much the actors have been cast both for ability and resemblance to their historical counterparts, from major players such as Secretary of State William Seward (
Working with his usual team of equals — cinematographer
Care was taken with the physical details as well, especially the interior of the White House, where Lincoln's office was re-created with complete accuracy, and where the president interacts with his family, trying to placate his ever-emotional wife Mary (a convincing
The political core of "Lincoln" begins with the president's determination, much to the displeasure of close advisor Seward, to get the House to pass the 13th Amendment. Fearful that the previously enacted Emancipation Proclamation might not stand up to legal challenges, Lincoln gets surprisingly steely as he insists that this simply must be done if slavery is to be permanently eradicated. The problem is getting the votes.
To help make this happen, Seward brings in a trio of arm-twisters, the 1860s versions of today's lobbyists, who are charged by a president not shy about saying he is "clothed in immense power" to use any means necessary to round up the needed congressional votes. This trio, amusingly played by
Because the stakes are so high, and because he turns out to be a master strategist, the president himself inevitably gets personally involved in playing politics. He deals with key leaders like Preston Blair (
One of the surprises and the pleasures of "Lincoln" is its portrait of the president as a man gifted at reconciling irreconcilable points of view, someone who wouldn't hesitate to play both ends against the middle and even stretch the truth in the service of the greater good.
Kushner has said that he wrote "Lincoln" because, upset at today's endemic lack of faith in governance, he wanted to tell a story that "shows that you can achieve miraculous, beautiful things through the democratic system." It's a lesson that couldn't be more timely, or more thoroughly dramatic.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language
Running time: 2 hours, 29 minutes
Playing: In limited release