In Steven Spielberg’s brilliant, brawling epic about the last four months in the life of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln takes a few hits up there on his marble pedestal. Political double-dealing was not beyond this American icon, not when his country was struggling in the darkness. What Honest Abe gets back from this defiantly alive film is his humanity – flaws, fears and personal feelings that serve to deepen his thoughts rather than distract them. The phenomenal Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln with the immersive, indelible power of an actor who wears his role like a second skin and feels it down to the nerve endings. This is acting of the highest order.
In adapting just a small part of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the 2005 bestseller about Lincoln and his Cabinet, screenwriter Tony Kushner blows the dust off history by investing it with flesh, blood and churning purpose. Kushner lets the words come in torrents as Lincoln uses every argument and backroom trick at his disposal to force friend and foe to heal a divided nation. From January to April 1865, the newly re-elected president is torn apart by the bloody Civil War, rattled by domestic battles with his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), and yet lit by a fire in his belly to jam a 13th Amendment through Congress that will forever abolish slavery.
It’s a hell of a thing, this Lincoln, a portrait of America as a parade of eloquent, stubborn, patriotic, rebellious, manipulative, passionate talking heads spoiling to be heard. Spielberg and Kushner don’t stop for flashbacks and backstory. Lincoln is all forward thrust and hot-damn urgency. Of course, to audiences who prefer visual stimulation to verbal fireworks, Lincoln may seem like a lot of white dudes in wigs shouting at one another. To each his own.
Though Lincoln is seen visiting Union general Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) on the front, battle scenes are scarce. The film begins with soldiers dying in the muck, a sobering sight that gives way to a dialogue between Lincoln and two black Union soldiers who quote his Gettysburg Address back at him and wonder how the proposition that “all men are created equal” will play out in the real world. The sequence is a setup, artificial, perhaps, but a way for us to get our bearings. Even before Reconstruction, Lincoln had to face political skeptics.
Though Day-Lewis plays Lincoln as the calm center in this storm, the actor is expert at letting us see tensions roiling inside him. At home, he soothes his depressive wife – he calls her Molly – who demands that he forbid their eldest son, Robert (a splendid Joseph Gordon- Levitt), from enlisting. Molly spends days brooding in the room of their son Willie, who died of typhoid in 1862, leaving her husband to care for their youngest son, Tad, 12. Field is a live wire as a first lady who won’t bend to convention. She is hard on advisers who criticize her spending on a White House she calls a “pig sty.” She accepts that history will lionize her husband and dismiss her as “a crazy lady.” The role is a tour de force for Field, and she fills it with flame and inner terror.
A more public hell awaits Lincoln on the job. Even his friend, Secretary of State William Seward (a superb, warmly funny David Strathairn), tells Lincoln he can either end the war or abolish slavery. Not both. A Confederate delegation, led by Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), is headed for D.C. to negotiate peace – something it won’t do if slavery is outlawed. A harried Lincoln must wrangle a majority vote in the House before the delegation arrives.
It’s here, in the fever of debate, that Spielberg proves he can generate terrific suspense. Hold the special effects. Spielberg and Kushner exult in showing Lincoln getting the job done, by whatever means necessary. Janusz Kaminski’s burnished camerawork and John Williams’ subtly resonant score never overpower the action.
And what action! You can only marvel watching Tommy Lee Jones take the floor as Republican Thaddeus Stevens, a bewigged, fire-breathing abolitionist whose sharp tongue spares no hypocrite. Check out his showstopping takedown of pro-slavery Democrat Fernando Wood (Lee Pace). In an Oscar- caliber performance, Jones is simply sensational, bitingly funny and fearlessly blunt.
Kudos as well to John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and a deliciously smarmy James Spader as a trio of gloves-off lobbyists that Lincoln brings in to pressure his opponents. Lincoln, once a prairie lawyer, is not above legal trickery. And his bracing wit, a hallmark of Kushner’s script, gives the movie a surprising buoyancy. Still, the darkness of the film is undeniable. This is a warrior Lincoln pushed to the wall, and aggressively, sometimes blindly, pushing back. Day-Lewis’ surpassing artistry makes that a sight to behold. He uses a thin, high voice to approximate the real Lincoln’s sound. But its force is always felt. This Lincoln can whisper across canyons.
He can also break your heart. A haunting image is of Lincoln alone, walking through the White House at night like a tormented ghost. I could have used more of that torment. Some scenes of unventilated rhetoric are stagy to a fault, and the script never grapples with how Lincoln’s early acceptance of slavery morphed into a zeal to end it. Yet the movie holds us in its grip. Lincoln represents what Teddy Roosevelt defined as “the man in the arena,” who even if he fails “at least fails while daring greatly.” Spielberg, Kushner and Day-Lewis also dare greatly in giving us this complex, conflicted portrait of a great American leader. The result, glitches and all, is a great American movie.