The brilliance that is Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” burns itself into your memory like no other film about American politics.
When one of our nation’s most iconic directors takes on one of our most iconic presidents, sparks are sure to fly. And when those embers amass and explode into the brilliance that is Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” it burns itself into your memory like no other film about American politics.
It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, either, given how Congress has become a house divided under a president seemingly incapable of compromise. Of course, ol’ Abe didn’t have the lure of sitting down with Letterman, Leno and the ladies of “The View” to distract him from the business of reuniting an electorate desperate to be yanked from the morass. Whether intentional or not, the Lincoln-Obama contrasts echo throughout Tony Kushner’s evocative script (culled from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”) about a man who literally put his life on the line to fight for what he believed in. He simply would not take no for an answer when it came to his crusade to abolish slavery, even going so far as to let a long, bloody civil war drag on until he got what he wanted from a recalcitrant Congress. And what he wanted was a 13th Amendment forever guaranteeing freedom to people of every race, creed, color and religion.
The month-long fight for that essential piece of legislation accounts for the bulk of “Lincoln.” But in those frantic 31 days of January 1865, we’re able to discern everything there is to know about a man who somehow kept his wits while dealing with a conscience flooded with remorse over the recent death of his young son, Willie, and the 750,000 other sons who laid down their lives from Gettysburg to Vicksburg. It’s the quintessential story of an American hero, and who better to portray him than a two-time Oscar-winning Brit in Daniel Day-Lewis, who probably knew about as much about U.S. history as we know about English royalty. Yet Day-Lewis not only fulfills your perceptions of Lincoln’s greatness, he surpasses them with a performance that blends divine humanity with brass-balls fortitude.
Lincoln was but one man, but under the Day-Lewis administration, we get an Honest Abe who encapsulates the charm of Clinton, the wit of Kennedy and the folksiness of Reagan, all rolled into a single, rail-thin figure bearing the weight of the world on his slightly hunched shoulders. What’s most striking about Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is just how funny he can be, even at the direst times. Always quick with an anecdote about his lawyering days, or an off-color yarn about one of the founding fathers, Lincoln’s greatest gift may well have been his ability to calm his family and allies through levity. But he was also just as likely to slam his fists in frustration over his minions’ inability to sway conservative, lame-duck Democrats to back the amendment.
Page 2 of 3 - The only time we see Lincoln out of his element is in the presence of his less than warm-and-fuzzy wife, Mary (a marvelously unhinged Sally Field), and rebellious elder son, Robert (a solid, but underused, Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who, despite his parents’ vigorous objections, is adamant about dropping out of Harvard and enlisting with the Union Army. It’s during these brief vignettes that we witness Lincoln at his most vulnerable and indecisive. Day-Lewis makes those moments not only empathetic, but also heartbreaking, especially the anguish Lincoln endures over allowing hundreds of men to die on the battlefield while rejecting peace overtures until slavery is abolished.
Knowing what Lincoln was up against, you’d think his family would cut him a break, but they’re about as resistive to his needs as his Cabinet and key members of Congress, including staunch abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania (a sensational Tommy Lee Jones working from under the 19th century’s worst toupee) and slavery’s chief advocate, Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) of New York. About the only kin having Lincoln’s back is youngest son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), whose boisterous disruptions of his father’s meetings are often viewed as a welcome respite by the president.
It’s all part and parcel of an absorbing study of a man who, by almost all accounts, was unknowable. But it’s only slightly more fascinating than the coddling and backroom deals we witness being cut by a trio of lobbyists (humorously played by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) dispatched by Lincoln’s closest adviser, Secretary of State William Henry Seward (a stately David Strathairn), to round up the votes needed to secure passage of the amendment. Seeing the trio lock up supporters through promises of patronage and quid pro quo is akin to watching sausage made. You like the result, but the process makes you cringe. Yet, you also wonder why the same can’t be done to end the current congressional gridlock. And it’s those contrasting parallels between Lincoln and Obama that lend “Lincoln” its relevance to today; because if ever we needed another Lincoln, it’s now.
That sense of urgency is paramount to Kushner, who repeats the strategy behind his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Angels in America,” and his Oscar-nominated script for “Munich,” to distill a major historical event to its essence. It’s a history lesson, yes, but it’s also hugely entertaining, leaving you laughing one minute and teary the next. And it’s all keenly presented by Spielberg, who delivers his most straightforward, unadorned movie to date. Never once do you sense the director’s presence, a first for Spielberg, and an asset that makes “Lincoln” feel all the more real and involving. It’s not perfect, but like our 16th president, it’s the right thing at the right time. And as a nation, we are all the better for it.
Page 3 of 3 - LINCOLN (PG-13 for graphic battle scenes and language.) Cast includes Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Hawkes, Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 4 stars out of 4.