It’s tilted Lincoln, which makes it sound like a bio-pic, but this newest Steven Spielberg film, written by Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner and based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 bestseller Team of Rivals, does something far more interesting and timely than condense a great life into cinematic bullet points. Lincoln dramatizes the build-up in Washington to the end of the Civil War and the House of Representatives’ vote over the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery. So it’s perhaps best to describe this as a political procedural, a portrait of the democratic process during a pivotal moment in American history.
Of course it’s also a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in his final months, played here by Daniel Day-Lewis, the Anglo-Irishman who’s made something of a career of embodying larger than life emblems of American masculinity (see The Last of the Mohicans, Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood). A refreshing shift away from the terror and bombast of Bill the Butcher of Daniel Plainview, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is more Peter Fonda than John Huston, gentle in gesture and reedy in voice, prone to unhurried anecdotes, mischievous uncle jokes and deceptively sly parables, the Colombo of presidents, content to play things relaxed and unthreatening, until the moment comes to show a firm hand and a clear, determined vision. Day-Lewis is well complimented by Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, who swings from near-hysteria to charisma and control, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, a man charged with realizing and finessing some of Lincoln’s thornier ambitions, and Tommy Lee Jones as Republican congressional leader and outspoken abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, ornery but articulate, formidable in congress, an author of inspired public insults with two old fried eggs for eyes.
Kushner’s taken a wildly complex, multi-character political narrative and given it a shrewd structure, though he could have lost some peripheral threads, such as one involving Lincoln’s eldest son, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the superfluous denouement. Kushner’s given his characters some wonderfully eloquent jabs and big, obvious speeches that aren’t inordinately showy. He’s also written some absolutely deadly expository dialogue, yet thankfully John Williams, that most ham-fisted of composers, largely refrains from underscoring all of this dialogue with the sort of soaring schmaltz one might be bracing for. Maybe he was following his old pal Spielberg’s lead, since Lincoln generally finds the director working in a pleasingly reserved mode. He seems to understand that what’s gripping and fascinating about this story requires and rewards our careful attention; to beat us over the head with the gravity of every scene would only distract from the delight of the details.
For all its flaws, Lincoln feels like the important historical epic it strives to be. And while it’s fundamentally an ensemble picture, I can’t really bear any grudges against the film for orbiting around Lincoln, who’s certainly the closest thing here to a genuine hero. But please don’t bear any grudges against me if I confess that I’d love to see the same story told from the perspective of the three stooges—played by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and a zesty, porky, moustachioed James Spader— Seward hires to persuade fence-sitting voters by any means (more or less) legally necessary. Such hedonistic hucksters can also hold history’s dice. And they’re a hell of a lot of fun to explore a few months in 1865 America with.