Presidential Portrait

Spielberg offers an epic meditation on Lincoln’s last months

Lincoln is a grave and subtle magic trick, conjuring the past and an impressive figure in ways that transcend art direction and the right stovepipe hat. Director Steven Spielberg’s latest combines the most commonly shared notions we have of our 16th U.S. president—the folksy deliberation, the spindly gait, the all-seeing eye on the prize of history remade—with the behavior, idiosyncrasies and contradictions of an actual human being. It blends cinematic Americana with something grubbier and more interesting than Americana, and it does not behave like the usual perception of a Spielberg epic. It is smaller and quieter.

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 (Simon & Schuster, 2006), Lincoln focuses 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 backseat 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 Daniel Day-Lewis in a performance both iconic and gloriously human. While some may find the Lincoln screenplay by Angels in America dramatist and Munich co-screenwriter Tony Kushner daunting in its devotion to language, well … if you can’t turn an eloquent major writer loose on this president, then where are we, really? The subject matter, Day-Lewis’ casual-seeming brilliance, the collective authority of a supporting cast that could scarcely be improved: These elements energize Spielberg’s picture, easily his most accomplished since Minority Report.

Last year’s Spielberg film, War Horse, pushed the Old Hollywood artifice to a breaking point, and it had me wondering if Spielberg needed to replace his longtime collaborators. They include cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams. All have returned for duty on Lincoln. And the results are exquisite. Spielberg’s unfussy but highly expressive compositions evoke stately elements of John Ford. Mainly, though, this is Spielberg learning from himself, and learning how and when to not push his technique.

There are images of Civil War carnage, but battle footage in Lincoln is confined to a brief prologue. The first dialogue scene sets the tone 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, and then two white soldiers, one of whom amusingly recites lines from a Lincoln speech. The way this scene works, we’re shown Lincoln first as a forbidding wonder, the man of “semi-divine stature,” as his Secretary of State William Henry Seward (David Strathairn) later calls him. Day-Lewis is marvelous, however, at finding little “ummmms” and hesitations and at locating what is likely a truthful approximation of Lincoln’s thin, reedy tenor.

Lincoln makes full use of its 2 1/2 hours. We glimpse Lincoln at home, in the White House, with his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field, fiercely engaged), who has suffered after the loss of their son. Her grief-borne hysteria has tried Lincoln’s patience. For all that, this is a family, wracked with melancholy and loss, that knew love and camaraderie.

Mainly, Lincoln focuses on what it took to get the 13th Amendment passed, and the multifarious players involved. Tommy Lee Jones delivers a spectacularly good turn as Thaddeus Stevens, Pennsylvania’s “radical Republican,” whose devotion to the elimination of slavery drove his political opponents to distraction. A fictionalized trio of lobbyists are given great brio by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson. While there’s a Shakespearean history-play component to Lincoln, the individual scenes, rich in detail and sly revelations of character, allow the flesh and blood to emerge from the debating.

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.

Lincoln (PG-13) ★★★★☆

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