Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn
Length: 150 min.
In its opening five minutes, Lincoln plays disturbingly like the American patriot love letter I feared Spielberg would succumb to. Union soldiers, fresh out of battle, quote the Gettysburg Address verbatim like Disciples of Christ as they stand opposite Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), who is framed by Spielberg with such mystery and awe he might as well be the prophet himself.
As the last soldier walks away and John Williams’ orchestrations soar sentimentally into action, one could be forgiven for expecting the remaining 145 minutes of Lincoln to consist of Old Abe staring wistfully at the star spangled banner with a tear running down his cheek.
However, Spielberg’s opening salvo is one of the great misdirects. With his seemingly mandatory maudlin dip out of the way early, Spielberg proceeds to deliver a gritty but nonetheless rousing political biopic. Lincoln focuses almost entirely on the eponymous President’s attempts to abolish slavery through the 13th Amendment, as civil war between the Union and Confederates rages. Knowing the end of the war would prevent the bill from passing, Lincoln battles to unify the House of Representatives through any means possible.
With such an intimate focus on endless political hassling, Lincoln could easily have become a leaden series of exchanges between dull figureheads spouting tiresome political rhetoric. However, Spielberg embellishes every debate in every dust-laden boardroom with the same attention to craft he is noted for with his action set pieces. There is no shortage of flair or formalistic poetry in this version of history. Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography squeezes the atmosphere out of potentially suffocating, dry settings; sunlight streams through cotton drapes as smoke and dust hangs in the air, an atmosphere as charged as the words that fly out of the conversational combatant’s mouths.
Worlds away from the volcanic Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson 2007), Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a pensive, moderate being – patient under duress, and uncomfortable with letting anger seep into his voice. Day-Lewis masters Lincoln’s gangly gait and fervent stare, but above all his performance captures the ineluctable sadness that pervades this figure living with the grief of a tragic episode in his past.
In contrast, Tommy Lee Jones gobbles up the scenery deliciously as Thaddeus Stevens, a fervent supporter of equal rights for slaves who must learn the art of compromise. Contemporary politicians would benefit from studying the timing and wit of the many 19th century insults Stevens unloads at his colleagues.
Sally Field plays an empathetic, conflicted Mary Todd Lincoln as a critical counterpoint to stoic Abraham, while Boston Legal’s James Spader is very amusing as a moustachioed weasel hired to sway unhappy Democrat members. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is underused as Robert Lincoln, whose significance amounts to a whiny bit role about joining the army that at least serves to unhinge the President’s stoic image.
Spielberg’s steady and restrained control over the material ultimately seals this entertaining historical document into a tidy package. With less focus on political alignment or patriotic hubris, Spielberg has crafted a film that depicts politicians simply trying to do the right thing. In today’s political climate, such a focus could not be more refreshing.