Abraham Lincoln may not technically be the subject of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” but Daniel Day-Lewis is inarguably its star, delivering an unimpeachable performance as the United States’ 16th president in a shrewd, stately and somewhat stuffy drama focused on a narrow yet defining chapter of Lincoln’s life: abolishing slavery via the passage of a Constitutional amendment. Though historians will surely find room to quibble, every choice Day-Lewis makes lends dignity and gravitas to America’s most revered figure, resulting in an event movie whose commercial and critical fate rides on the reputations of not just Lincoln, but the esteemed creative team as well.
Too seldom does American cinema deal with the country’s most shameful policy: the paradox by which a nation founded on equality might allow the subjugation and servitude of one race to persist for nearly a century. Spielberg, however, has faced the issue head-on, not just once (“The Color Purple”) or twice (“Amistad”), but three times, confronting it most directly — at the very core of the policy — in “Lincoln.” The title functions as something of a misnomer, considering that the president here serves as the instrument to emancipation and not the actual focus of the film, as if “Amistad” had been released as “Quincy Adams.”
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Liberally adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book “Team of Rivals,” Tony Kushner’s script dramatizes the behind-the-scenes story of the wheeling and dealing required to pass the 13th Amendment — undoubtedly the legacy for which Lincoln hoped to be remembered, not realizing how compelling audiences would find every aspect of his private life 144 years later.
The theater-trained scribe, who previously co-wrote “Munich” for the director, defies what admirers expect of a Spielberg-made Lincoln biopic. In place of vicarious emotion and tour de force filmmaking, “Lincoln” offers a largely static intellectual reappraisal of the great orator, limiting not only the scenery chewing but also the scenery itself in what amounts to Spielberg’s most play-like production yet; it’s a style that will keep many viewers at arm’s length.
Emphasizing talk over action, Kushner concentrates on Lincoln’s strategy of forcing an unpopular and recently defeated policy through a lame-duck House of Representatives. Enlisting three buffoonish vote-buyers (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson), the executive doesn’t hesitate to exploit his immense powers, which extend to offering cushy government jobs, pardons and other presidential privileges to those willing to embrace his position.
This is politics as it is really played, yet few writers have found a way to make it as compelling as Kushner does here. That success owes in part to the extensive character-actor ensemble Spielberg and casting director Avy Kaufman have enlisted, repaying them with dramatic roles for not only Lincoln’s entire cabinet (most prominently David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward), but more than a dozen key allies and opponents of the 13th Amendment, including Lee Pace as a showboating Democrat, Michael Stuhlbarg as a conscience-conflicted swing voter and David Costabile as the doubting Thomas among Lincoln’s closest supporters.
Despite occasional digressions into spectacular but artificial-looking Civil War battlefields, the action is rowdiest on the floor of Congress, where Republican representative Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) trades scathing barbs with such ideological rivals as George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie, who more closely resembles frown-creased portraits of the real-life Stevens than Jones does). Though the film inevitably deals with Lincoln’s assassination, notably played offscreen, the climax comes during the Congressional vote itself, in which Spielberg allows the names of history’s heroes to ring out the way he previously did those saved on Schindler’s list. Even more effective is the way Kushner integrates the full text of the Gettysburg Address and the 13th Amendment into the body of the film.
Still, since audiences inevitably prefer personal intrigue to the inner workings of politics, Kushner laces “Lincoln” with details about first lady “Molly” (Sally Field), as Abe called his wife, Mary, and sons Tad (Gulliver McGrath) and Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt), who withdraws from Harvard in order to enlist in the Union army, despite his father’s adamant demands to the contrary. Still, these human-interest scenes seem to get in the way of the story at hand, offering valuable, intimate glimpses of the Lincolns as seldom seen before, yet inorganic to the abolition of slavery — save one powerful scene, when Mary, having already lost one son and loathe to watch Robert perish in the Civil War, publicly threatens her husband, “If you fail to acquire the necessary votes, woe unto you, you will have to answer to me.” Spielberg and Kushner hold this truth to be self-evident: that behind every powerful man is a woman pushing him toward greatness.
Informed largely by Goodwin’s research, “Lincoln” presents an image of the president very different from the melancholy figure so often seen before. Such crushing grief falls instead to Field, whose long-suffering Mary endured debilitating migraines and deep depression after the death of their son Willie, but also scandalously overspent in her efforts to outfit the White House — and herself — to a level she felt befitting the first family. Curiously, Mary was a decade Abraham’s junior, though Field is actually a decade older than Day-Lewis, creating an odd, almost maternal dynamic between the two actors.
Meanwhile, Day-Lewis plays Lincoln as a physically awkward but not unhandsome figure, gentle with his children, uncomfortable with ceremony (his disdain of calfskin gloves becomes a running joke), and firm when needed with colleagues who could not always see the wisdom in the man some considered “the capitulating compromiser.” This Lincoln is a lover of theater and avid raconteur who easily quotes from Shakespeare and scripture, a man who problem-solves via storytelling — an impression that naturally flatters those in Spielberg and Kushner’s profession.
Perhaps that explains the staginess of “Lincoln’s” telling, right down to the creak of the boards under the great orator’s feet and d.p. Janusz Kaminski’s conservative framing, which recalls either classic prosceniums or heavily shadowed Renaissance paintings. Though incongruous with the psychological realism that Kushner, through elevated dialogue, aims to achieve, this iconic style suits such a beloved persona.
And yet, Lincoln’s life takes a backseat to the ideological battle between two opposing ideas — an end to slavery, or an end to war. The result looks as much like a Natural History Museum diorama as it sounds: a respectful but waxy re-creation that feels somehow awe-inspiring yet chillingly lifeless to behold, the great exception being Jones’ alternately blistering and sage turn as Stevens.
Production values are as elegant as one would expect from Spielberg, grittier but no less impressionistic than last year’s “War Horse.” John Williams’ score, which seemingly incorporates hymns, marches and other period music, offers vital but unobtrusive support.