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 “Lincoln.”
Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president of the United States, “Lincoln” unfolds during the final four months of the chief executive’s life as he focuses his energies on a dramatic struggle that has not previously loomed large in political mythology: his determination to get the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.
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 drama inherent in the overarching battle of big ideas over the amendment as well as the small-bore skirmishes of political strategy and the nitty-gritty scramble for congressional votes.
These things all begin, as thoughtful films invariably do, with an excellent script. A Pulitzer Prize-winner for “Angels in America,” Kushner has always been adept at illuminating the interplay of the personal and the political. His literate screenplay, based on parts of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln,” is smart, dramatic and confident of the value of what it has to say.
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 (Bruce McGill) snaps in exasperation, “No, you’re not going to tell a story. I can’t bear to hear one.”
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 (David Strathairn) and firebrand Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) down to minor characters like amendment opponent Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay (Jeremy Strong).
Working with his usual team of equals — cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter, editor Michael Kahn, costume designer Joanna Johnston and composer John Williams — Spielberg has paid particular attention to creating a realistic world for his characters to inhabit, seeping us in the period and seeing to it that the color scheme and the muted lighting enhance the film’s naturalistic palette.
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 Sally Field), distraught after the death of their young son Willie, as well as oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is desperate to enlist in the Union Army against his parents’ wishes.
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 John Hawkes, James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson, are as close to comic relief as “Lincoln” gets.
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 (Hal Holbrook), a conservative Republican who is eager for peace talks with the South, and of course Jones’ Stevens, an irascible, vitriolic abolitionist (“the meanest man in Congress” according to Roy Blount Jr.) who is just getting warmed up when he calls an opponent a “fatuous nincompoop.”
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