There is pomp, yes, and the historical circumstance could scarcely be more formidable. Based on parts of the Doris Kearns Goodwin book "Team of Rivals," "Lincoln" focuses tightly on the final four months of its subject's life and his political maneuvering in support of the 13th Amendment's abolition of slavery, just as the Civil War was grinding to a close. It's a fascinating backroom movie, hushed and intimate. Now and then the drama takes a back seat to the rhetoric. But this is one of the canniest explorations of a political animal in recent memory.
The animal in question is played by
Last year's Spielberg film,
There are images of Civil War carnage, but battle footage in "Lincoln" is confined to a brief, muddy, bloody prologue recalling Welles' "Chimes at Midnight." The first dialogue scene sets the tone and direction for the film. It is a conversation between Lincoln and, first, two African-American soldiers, one of whom suspects his president may be more about words than deeds when it comes to equality of the races, and then two white soldiers, one of whom amusingly begins reciting lines from a Lincoln speech. The way this scene works (it's one of the shrewdest things Kushner has ever written), we're shown Lincoln first as the forbidding wonder in half-shadow, the man of "semi-divine stature," as his Secretary of State William Henry Seward (
"Lincoln" makes full use of its 21/2 hours. We glimpse Lincoln at home, in the White House, with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (
Mainly, "Lincoln" focuses on what it took to get the 13th Amendment passed, and the multifarious players involved either in its blockage or its passage.
Throughout "Lincoln," Kushner's skill in illuminating the margins of great events is on display. Key historical markers are addressed head-on, briefly and often without dialogue, such as Robert E. Lee's surrender to
Arm-twisting a political rival whose vote he needs, Day-Lewis' Lincoln at one point asserts how abolition will force America to "extemporize and experiment" its way forward. Nothing in Spielberg's film feels unplanned, but the director allows himself simplicity as well as freedom in his approach to the material. The script may be highly verbal, and it may not tell the whole truth about an extraordinarily complex leader. But I found it inspiring, and Spielberg apparently felt the same way.