Steven Spielberg has made plenty of films about war, films like “Saving Private Ryan” and “War Horse” that have painted alternately horrifying and moving pictures of the great American conflicts. “Lincoln” is his first film about making peace. A healthy dose of biopic tendencies (elements?) and a stirring performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as the titular president result in a pedigree that basically screams “Give me Oscars!” Thankfully, “Lincoln” is more than that, a surprisingly specific and engaging look at one of Abraham Lincoln’s most important acts in the White House — passing the 13th Amendment and ending the Civil War.
The film takes place in a very small window of Abraham Lincoln’s (Day-Lewis) life, just after his re-election as president. The Civil War continues to tear the nation apart, and before the inevitable peacetime comes, Lincoln is determined to pass the 13th Amendment, which would ban slavery. With the help of cabinet member William Seward (David Strathairn) and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), Lincoln sets about gathering up the votes necessary to push the amendment through.
Spielberg’s last collaboration with screenwriter Tony Kushner gave audiences the divisive “Munich,” and “Lincoln” is a more accomplished work in almost every way. Both films lack Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality, but “Lincoln” has the added challenge of making congressional bureaucracy into a compelling story. However, Spielberg brings some immediacy and importance to the story and even manages to wring suspense out of something as simple as counting votes, never letting the viewer get lost in the many historical figures on screen.
Perhaps the most interesting result of Spielberg and Kushner’s collaboration is the picture that emerges of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln has become a major part of the American mythos, and it could have been easy to coast on that established knowledge without ever gaining any insight into the man himself. Thankfully, Kushner and Day-Lewis bring such a measured, likable sense of purpose to Lincoln, never failing to humanize him but also never forgetting what a monumentally important figure he is in the political landscape.
This Lincoln is a spectacular orator, a storyteller at heart. He can spin a yarn to make a point, calm a crowd or win a vote, and the people around him are alternately entranced or infuriated by Lincoln’s endless supply of anecdotes and parables. Day-Lewis turns in an expectedly transformative performance, and his Lincoln is full of depth and passion, warmth and humor.
Jones has one of “Lincoln’s” larger roles as Thaddeus Stevens, a rigid abolitionist whose extremist opinions are as threatening to the amendment as the more conservative views across the aisle. Jones spells out some of the film’s key themes: the slow pace of political progress and the need for compromise to get anything done. It’s a message that seems resolutely pointed, a reminder about today’s politics as much as it is an illustration of the past.
The film is packed with familiar faces, and almost everyone Lincoln encounters is an accomplished character actor swooping in for a quick grace note. The film’s cast is absolutely stacked, and actors like Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, John Hawkes and James Spader all bring something to the table. On the other hand, the film’s cast can get a bit distracting, as many scenes are simple guessing games of who’s going to turn up next. Often, it’s a pleasant surprise, but sometimes it can be extremely jarring. For example, Adam Driver from “Girls” shows up for a bit part, and it’s hard to pay attention to Lincoln’s anecdotes when you’re flashing back to one of Lena Dunham’s trademark mortifying sex scenes.
It’s interesting that the biggest rising star in “Lincoln” is easily the film’s weakest link, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt had to make a career misstep sooner or later. Not that he doesn’t do fine, noble work as Lincoln’s oldest son, but his scenes grind the film to a halt and never manage to rise above perfunctory. Gordon-Levitt is a strong, likable presence, but his role seems shoehorned in and lacks any sort of payoff.
“Lincoln” is the type of film that practically oozes pedigree, but it’s far from the snoozer many might expect. It’s not just a showcase for Day-Lewis, not just a snapshot of a specific moment in American history and not just a portrait of one of our country’s greatest presidents. It’s a spectacularly acted, immaculately constructed piece of entertainment, and with a premise as dry as “Lincoln,” that’s about the highest praise you can give.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Runtime: 149 minutes