"Lincoln" is a grave and surprisingly subtle magic trick, conjuring the past and an almost ridiculously impressive figure in ways that transcend art direction and the right stovepipe hat. Director Steven Spielberg's latest combines the most commonly shared notions we have of our 16th U.S. president — the folksy deliberation, the spindly gait, the all-seeing eye on the prize of history remade — with the behavior, idiosyncrasies and contradictions of an actual human being. It blends cinematic Americana with something grubbier and more interesting than Americana, and it does not look, act or behave like the usual perception of a Spielberg epic. It is smaller and quieter than that.
There is pomp, yes, and the historical circumstance could scarcely be more formidable. Based on parts of the Doris Kearns Goodwin book "Team of Rivals," "Lincoln" focuses tightly on the final four months of its subject's life and his political maneuvering in support of the 13th Amendment's abolition of slavery, just as the Civil War was grinding to a close. It's a fascinating backroom movie, hushed and intimate. Now and then the drama takes a back seat to the rhetoric. But this is one of the canniest explorations of a political animal in recent memory.
The animal in question is played by Daniel Day-Lewis in a performance both iconic and gloriously human. While some may find the "Lincoln" screenplay by "Angels in America" dramatist and "Munich" co-screenwriter Tony Kushner daunting in its ardent devotion to language, well … I mean, look, if you can't turn an eloquent major writer loose on this president, then where are we, really? The subject matter, Day-Lewis' casual-seeming brilliance, the collective authority of a supporting cast that could scarcely be improved: These elements energize Spielberg's picture, easily his most accomplished since "Minority Report" (a rather different sort of film) a decade ago.
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Last year's Spielberg film, "War Horse," pushed the Old Hollywood artifice to a breaking point, and it had me wondering if Spielberg needed a change-up in terms of his longtime collaborators. They include cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams. All have returned for duty on "Lincoln." And the results are exquisitely right. The picture does not go in for the hard sell. Spielberg's unfussy but highly expressive compositions evoke stately elements of John Ford (and in the more extreme foreground/background arrangement of actors in the frame, Orson Welles). Mainly, though, this is Spielberg learning from himself, and learning how and when not to push his technique out of insecurity or nervousness.
There are images of Civil War carnage, but battle footage in "Lincoln" is confined to a brief, muddy, bloody prologue recalling Welles' "Chimes at Midnight." The first dialogue scene sets the tone and direction for the film. It is a conversation between Lincoln and, first, two African-American soldiers, one of whom suspects his president may be more about words than deeds when it comes to equality of the races, and then two white soldiers, one of whom amusingly begins reciting lines from a Lincoln speech. The way this scene works (it's one of the shrewdest things Kushner has ever written), we're shown Lincoln first as the forbidding wonder in half-shadow, the man of "semi-divine stature," as his Secretary of State William Henry Seward (David Strathairn) later calls him. Day-Lewis is marvelous, however, at finding little ummmms and hesitations and at locating what is very likely (though never to be proven) a truthful approximation of Lincoln's thin, reedy tenor speaking voice, according to accounts of the day.
"Lincoln" makes full use of its 21/2 hours. We glimpse Lincoln at home, in the White House, with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field, fiercely engaged), who has been through hell and back after the loss of their son. Her grief-borne hysteria has tried Lincoln's patience, to the point, so posits the film, that his domestic and political burdens seem roughly equal. For all that, this is a marriage and a family, wracked with melancholy and loss, that knew love and camaraderie. Kushner's big scene between Abe and Mary could've used more of a setup — it's arresting but somewhat abrupt — and yet you believe it. You believe their worst arguments might've sounded like this.
Mainly, "Lincoln" focuses on what it took to get the 13th Amendment passed, and the multifarious players involved either in its blockage or its passage. Tommy Lee Jones delivers a spectacularly good turn as Thaddeus Stevens, Pennsylvania's "radical Republican" (remember, the Republicans during Lincoln's time were the liberal ones), whose devotion to the elimination of slavery drove his political opponents to distraction. A fictionalized trio of lobbyists, "skulky men" charged with procuring Democratic votes in exchange for government positions, are given great brio by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson. Hal Holbrook, Michael Stuhlbarg, Gloria Reuben, S. Epatha Merkerson and many more turn up for a scene or two, sometimes three, and while there's a Shakespearean history-play component to "Lincoln," the individual scenes, rich in detail and sly revelations of character, allow the flesh and blood to emerge from the debating.
Throughout "Lincoln," Kushner's skill in illuminating the margins of great events is on display. Key historical markers are addressed head-on, briefly and often without dialogue, such as Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Other images, such as Lincoln's battlefield survey on horseback, strive for a classically mournful cinematic approach. The most lasting moments, though, are the unexpected details, such as the way one anti-abolitionist (Byron Jennings) talks bitterly about "this rash and dangerous amendment," just as the hands of a slave maid enter the frame, bearing a cup and saucer.
Arm-twisting a political rival whose vote he needs, Day-Lewis' Lincoln at one point asserts how abolition will force America to "extemporize and experiment" its way forward. Nothing in Spielberg's film feels unplanned, but the director allows himself simplicity as well as freedom in his approach to the material. The script may be highly verbal, and it may not tell the whole truth about an extraordinarily complex leader. But I found it inspiring, and Spielberg apparently felt the same way.
'Lincoln' -- 4 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language)
Running time: 2:30