If its portrait of him is accurate, then Abraham Lincoln would have loved Steven Spielberg's 'Lincoln.' The film is exactly like the man at its center: thoughtful and talkative, equally adept at spinning tales and navigating the murky waters of backroom politics. It suggests that well before Ronald Reagan, our 16th President was truly our nation's Great Communicator.
Spielberg's approach to 'Lincoln' is more like a chapter from a detailed biography than a traditional biopic. The entire story takes place over the course of a few weeks in early 1865, as the President races to convince the House of Representatives to ratify the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution and outlaw slavery. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) freed the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation, but its legal basis was tenuous at best, and it applied only to wartime. A more permanent solution to the plague of slavery was required.
By the time the debate over the amendment reaches Congress, America is entering the fourth year of its bloody Civil War. The Confederacy is exhausted and near defeat -- so near, in fact, that they're beginning to make overtures towards a surrender. But as is made clear in an early scene where Lincoln converses with a family that wants his help resolving a land dispute, if the war ends before slavery does, the country may never abolish it. So Lincoln and his staff are in a race against time: as a commission makes its way from the South to discuss terms of a peace, the President stalls and works to secure enough votes to pass the amendment. Even with everyone in his party behind him, he'll need to find 20 votes amongst the opposing Democrats.
The way to get them, essentially, is bribery, as the President, through his Secretary of State (David Straithairn), hires three schemers played by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a hilariously debauched James Spader to offer lame duck Democrats jobs in exchange for their vote. Immoral? Well, maybe -- but perhaps immorality in the service of a higher morality. That fine line between right and wrong, and the question of when it is permissible to do the latter in order to accomplish the former, proves the most compelling subtext of 'Lincoln.' What, ultimately, is the "right" thing to do? Lincoln believes with every fiber of his being that slavery is wrong and must be ended. But the Civil War is heinous too. The longer it drags on, the more lives it claims -- a fact made even more pressing by the President's eldest son, Robert's (Joseph Gordon Levitt) desire to enlist. The protective Lincolns have kept him out of the fight so far, but Robert's own morality tells him if he doesn't do his part in what little time is left, he'll regret it for the rest of his life. 'Lincoln' shows what a heavy burden leadership is. These are tests with no easy answers.
Creating a film like this one is surely a process fraught with similar perils and tough choices. In this case, Spielberg chose not to focus on the war itself -- which is depicted, briefly, in a prologue, and then essentially kept off-screen -- and to instead burrow into the world of 1860s Washington politics. The old dictum about good filmmaking -- show, don't tell -- is largely thrown out the window, but the screenplay by playwright Tony Kushner is so rich in detail and character -- not to mention Lincoln's endless supply of illuminating life lessons, anecdotes, and fables -- that you'll barely notice. Storytelling is the true star here.
Storytelling and Day-Lewis who, as usual, delivers an astonishingly transformative performance, vanishing yet again into a character in a way that should be impossible -- not only because he's a movie star and we instinctively know at this point what he's up to, but also because he's playing a guy we see anytime we reach into our wallets. Somehow, he makes us forget we're watching an actor give a performance. Somehow, he convinces us this is really Lincoln. It's possible Day-Lewis made up every detail -- the high, reedy voice, the shuffling walk, the quiet demeanor -- but it never, not even for a second, feels like it.
The Congressional setting -- where Republicans and Democrats battle back and forth over the amendment -- provides the opportunity for several juicy supporting roles. Juiciest of all is Representative Thaddeus Stevens, an abolitionist and a supporter of Lincoln's plan, played with fiery resolve by Tommy Lee Jones who, between this film and the surprisingly mature romantic comedy 'Hope Springs' is having himself quite a comeback year (What's that? He was also in 'Men in Black 3?' That's funny -- I don't remember there being a 'Men in Black 3.' What's that? I reviewed 'Men in Black 3' for ScreenCrush? No, you must be making that up).
The only misstep in the entire cast is Sally Field as the long-suffering First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. Field is fine, but she's also 66 years old. Mary Todd Lincoln was 63 when she died -- almost 20 years after the events depicted in the film. She just doesn't look like a woman with young children like little precocious little Tad (Gulliver McGrath). At times, that gets distracting.
'Lincoln' suffers from a bit of 'Lord of the Rings'-itis -- it comes to a perfect, understated conclusion and then continues on for three more totally unnecessary and somewhat deflating scenes. Occasionally, Spielberg's predilection for sentimentality feels as slathered onto the frame like the gauzy light cinematographer Janusz Kaminski sends pouring into Congress' enormous windows. Still, the movie leaves an impact. Its story of a divided country working through bipartisan bickering to secure a greater good certainly resonates with our equally fractured modern political landscape. But even more than that, the movie asks fascinating fundamental questions about ethics. It suggests that all life is compromise. Lincoln made many small ones in order to ensure that no one else could be allowed to make a big one.
‘Lincoln’ opens in select theaters today and nationwide on Friday, November 16.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’