‘Lincoln,’ directed by Steven Spielberg

By Doug Strassler,

Seven-score and seven years ago, a major battle was being fought. One that polarized sides, brought great strife, and tested everyone’s mettle (readers will note how precious little has changed since then). I speak not of the bloody Civil War battles stretching into their fourth year in 1865, but of a different kind of struggle being fought inside and behind closed doors: the war over the Thirteenth Amendment, which would forever emancipate slaves and change the face of the country in more ways than one.

Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (paired together for the first time since chronicling another historical chapter of unnecessary violence, Munich) adapt Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln to create a very specific biographical look at Abraham Lincoln (embodied here by Daniel Day-Lewis). This sober drama uses the small period of January 1865 as a window into the political acumen and social compassion of the sixteenth president rather than provide an epic life story; you won’t see him as an awkward youngster or learn about his early political entry, his courtship of Mary Ann Todd, or his famed debates with Stephen Douglas. What you will find, instead, is an erudite, and sometimes engrossing, illustration about how the man’s experience and skills crystallized in what would sadly be one of the last major decisions of his life.

By the film’s opening, Lincoln has already been re-elected and a Union victory is all but assured. Still, pragmatically, the Thirteenth Amendment was another way to undercut Confederacy power. Virtually no one wanted to pass the slavery-abolishing amendment (Democrats label him “Abraham Africanus”), forcing Lincoln and his cabinet – including David Strathairn’s stoic secretary of state William Seward – to make painful choices and flirt with strange bedfellows. He is forced to extend the national fighting. He bestows patronage jobs upon Democratic senators against abolition (played broadly but effectively by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader) as means to bribe them. He also must manage the prickly radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee (Tommy Lee Jones, in a career high).

Lincoln never quite reaches thrilling heights -- and not just because, you know, we the audience already knows the outcome of slavery, the Civil War, and how Lincoln’s life will end. No, despite all the political ping-ponging -- which Kushner distills quite accessibly over nearly two and a half hours -- Spielberg’s film is a patient one. One longs for a few roller-coaster highs or dramatic lows that never really arrive. Instead, Sally Field has several melodramatic scenes as the First Lady, lamenting the death of their young son, Willie, and fearing the fate of eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, not fully in period mode) when he insists on enlisting in the war himself. These scenes, unsubtle (especially when compared the grace notes hit by minor players Stephen McKinley Henderson and Gloria Reuben, among others) but well-acted, feel rather post-modernly self-aware as Mary Todd laments how history will portray her as a hysteric.

In other sections of the film, however, Kushner and Spielberg take great pains to assure verisimilitude of time, place, and language. Lincoln was a poor, self-taught frontier boy and Kushner captures the president’s mid-western locution and language of the time. Rick Baker’s production design, as framed by Janusz Kaminski’s brown-and-gray-hued cinematography, convincingly replicate the District of Columbia mid-nineteenth century.

Most effectively of all, of course, is Day-Lewis’ masterful transformation into the thoughtful leader, as he masks his own horror and grief behind a mask of contemplative reserve. It’s not about looking like the bearded president of the textbooks, but capturing the spirit of a man who knows how to captivate a group of bigwigs, even when he would rather be sitting in a room all alone with his youngest son. Through a transcendence beyond mere technical skill and discipline, Day-Lewis can project the president’s own essence; that even as he addressed people at a time when some were considered more worthy of dignity and respect than others, he knew better. Lincoln doesn’t show what shaped the man, but it does show how a man irrevocably shaped a nation.

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