Movie versions of Abraham Lincoln typically aspire to the granite face etched into Mount Rushmore, or the gangly, youthful rail-splitter of folk tales. In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” Daniel Day-Lewis masterfully brings to life a flesh-and blood-leader — stooped from the burdens of war and grief for his dead son, but animated by a thirst for political combat, imbued with a sense of providence and a sense of humor.
Mr. Day-Lewis embraces these paradoxes, giving us a picture of a man who understood himself to be indispensable in holding together the center of a fractious political coalition, yet was humbled by the responsibility. He wages war ruthlessly by day, but spends the small hours of the morning poring over lists of soldiers sentenced to die for small offenses, looking for young men to pardon. His opposition to slavery is bone-deep, but he is as happy to fight it with patronage politics as with appeals to lofty ideals.
It is our most lifelike Lincoln of cinema, and one calculated to have a broad appeal in our politically divided time. This Lincoln, who tells potential political allies a mix of what they want to hear and what they need to hear in order to get them to go where he wants, would be reviled today by purists of any ideological stripe as duplicitous and conniving. Lincoln owns to that and worse, wondering out loud whether his political opponents’ criticisms — that he is a dictator who arrogates powers to himself and his office that were not intended by the Constitution — are valid.
The events of “Lincoln” focus on a narrow but critical time — the lame-duck Congress in early 1865. After his re-election in 1864, as the Civil War lurched toward its inexorable end, Lincoln sought to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to eliminate slavery in the United States. The matter took on urgency as the Confederacy was signaling interest in a negotiated peace, and Lincoln worried that the conservative wing of the Republican Party might seek to end the war without ending slavery.
Mr. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner manage to wring a lot of excitement out of the fight in the House of Representatives, with grand floor speeches, backroom dealing, and even a dramatic roll call vote. To obtain their required two-thirds majority, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), tasks a team of fixers led by W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) to target pro-slavery Democrats who lost their seats in the November election to switch their allegiance in exchange for government jobs.
Complicating matters from the left, radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) is determined at first to bid for full enfranchisement and social equality for the slave population, and he is slow to see the wisdom of a more measured solution. Stevens‘ chief legislative antagonist, Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), tried to bait him into pronouncing his radical racial views on the floor of the House in front of the national press corps. In a scene that journalists especially will enjoy, Stevens, after silently wrestling with his conscience for a few long beats, manages to deliver his leadership-approved talking point. The assembled reporters dutifully log the quote into their bound notebooks, close them, and prepare to write their stories without seeking further detail.
There are a lot of cinematic flourishes intended to humanize and lend drama to the historical facts behind the narrative. A few of these may seem trite or ill-placed. There’s a war room scene in which Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) hang on the arrival of a telegraphic dispatch from a naval assault that has a blockbuster movie atmosphere. A subplot about Lincoln’s objections to his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) joining the army feels out of place.
Overall, however, “Lincoln” is a tour de force. The power of Mr. Day-Lewis‘ performance permeates every moment he is on the screen, and looms over every scene when he is not. The remarkable supporting cast members all but vanish into their roles. Sally Field deserves special mention for her nuanced depiction of Mary Todd Lincoln as a skilled political wife and a woman consumed by personal tragedy.
Mr. Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and the visual effects technicians do a phenomenal job of rendering the gas-lit interiors of 1865 in chiaroscuro, showing the family quarters of the White House as dim and unwelcoming, adding to the sense of despair that looms over the Lincoln family. One would have to go back to Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” to find a cinematic depiction of the world before electricity that is as convincing and transporting.
RATING: PG-13 for language and disturbing battle scenes
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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