★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Opens in local theaters on Nov. 16
There's a perfect final shot in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, where the celebrated 16th president stands silhouetted in the doorway of the White House, late to join his wife at the Ford's Theatre. The image is gorgeously composed and emotionally stirring, hailing the quiet yet dogged humanity of Honest Abe, tinged with just the right amount of foreboding. History has taught us what happens next.
Unfortunately, Spielberg – true to his baser instincts – runs his film for another 10 minutes, taking us through that fateful night (albeit without actually showing the assassination), then doubling down with a final rousing speech – Lincoln's Second Inaugural. It's one of only a few artistic lapses in an otherwise handsome and discriminating historical drama.
What'll be interesting to see is whether Spielberg's reputation for grandiose set pieces and shameless emotional button-pushing will attract robust audiences for a two-and-a-half-hour period piece that focuses on the true spirit of politics. Don't let the battle scenes in the trailers fool you; Lincoln is less about rifles and cannons and more about dandified lawyers and crotchety politicians in powdered wigs pounding the desk and hurling old-timey insults at one another.
The film is set in 1865, during the final months of the Civil War. Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) recognizes that he only has a small window of opportunity in which to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. As a result, he must unite the interests of radicals and conservatives in his own Republican party while picking off a few oppositional Democrats and secretly delaying a treaty with the South to end the bloodshed – a risky proposition given that the House had rejected the amendment less than a year earlier and the country was profoundly weary with war.
Lincoln depicts a particularly fractious time in American history, but the film isn't a dry civics lesson. Kushner's script revels in the nuances of rhetoric and the sport of power. The men of the 39th Congress embody high principles and base instincts, wrestling with their loyalty to party, personal fortune and conscience. Some are sincere, others connive, and a not-insignificant number are fools, unworthy of the offices they hold. It demonstrates how little the character of the House has changed over the last century and half; parallels to the battle over
Obamacare can be seen in its subtext.
Spirited debates, flowery oratory and homespun parables blossom throughout, and it's a joy to play spectator to Kushner's rich dialogue. "Oh, the joys of being comprehended," Lincoln states, and it's hard not to agree. This is a movie that embraces the fullness of English eloquence and dares the audience to keep up.
Spielberg's film is similarly triumphant in its casting. John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and the wonderfully pudgy James Spader play a trio of delightfully amoral lobbyists. And though playing the cantankerous radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens may seem like old hat for Tommy Lee Jones, his singular mix of thunder, humor, pride and moral decency will inevitably attract Oscar notice.
Putting aside the remarkable physical likeness, Lewis's portrait of Lincoln is both modestly grounded and masterfully complex. His shoulders are stooped, his smile warm and weary, and his voice is both higher-pitched and more timorous than we might expect. But the tenderness and melancholy, no doubt authentic to Lincoln's character, hide the great president's droll sense of humor, razor-sharp intelligence and cunning instincts. To some, he is a gentle and affable man who is given to homespun anecdotes that pack a metaphorical punch. To others, he is a shrewd and seasoned lawyer who knows how to wield the power of his personality and office. Lewis shows that he needs neither bluster nor gimmicks (as he is sometimes given to indulge in) to command the screen.
And yet, despite this, the film remains an emotionally detached experience. Perhaps sensing this, Spielberg inserts some family drama, with Abe's son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) insisting that he be permitted to join the war, and Sally Field's Mary Todd fretting and frothing that she won't lose another child.
It's hokey and distracting, and it unnecessarily cheapens Field's performance and character.
In the end, Lincoln demonstrates that history is made by ordinary people, and true leadership is the ability to overcome the drama of the moment in order to fulfill the wisdom of time. Spielberg's film illustrates how both Abraham Lincoln and members of Congress overcame the former in service of the latter. It is a lesson in duty and compromise that both the American electorate and its elected representatives would do well to learn.