Directed by Steven Spielberg
Consider the times: when the nation is saddled with a Congress whose obstructionists plot new ways not to get anything done, a movie about actually passing a law becomes a welcome spectacle. Lincoln hones in on a month-long stretch of the Great Emancipator’s presidency, January 1865, when the 13th Amendment ground its way toward passage while the Civil War was bloodily expiring. Directed by Spielberg from a screenplay by Tony Kushner that at times attains startling rhetorical beauty and intimate grandeur, this film portrays a man who is every inch the American hero and ideal of yore yet also a moody sage, a sly political genius, an emotional sponge, a moral compass balancing contradiction and compromise.
There are two movies at work here. The first is what you might expect from Spielberg, a swell Hollywood history book that moves, largely confined to Washington’s corridors, or dim backrooms, of power. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), Secretary of State William H. Seward (spitting image David Strathairn), and other Cabinet members and colorful characters such as anti-slavery warhorse Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) hash out tactics and principles; the score busts out fiddles as crack lobbyists chase down the 20 votes necessary for putting the amendment over. Countdown in Congress: it’s C-Span from the 1860s, with regional villains! Also in this broader vein is the weakly decorative detailing of Lincoln’s sons, one (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose urge to fight for the Union brings the war home, the other a chubby-cheeked kid playing dress-up in uniform and addicted to photographic plates of slaves.
But then there is Day-Lewis, embodying Lincoln with a twofold otherness—different from us across the ages in his bearing, beard and diction, and yet separate within his time too. “Are we fitted to the times?” he muses to two hapless telegraph operators in one of many richly theatrical off-hours set pieces, while earlier, recalling a dream, he confesses to feeling “very keenly aware of my alone-ness.” He is a figure of weary wisdom, with ready homespun wit and parables (ex-celling at the stories that are common coin at the time); he speaks with fatalism and pragmatism, staring down destiny even as he forges the nation’s future with seem-ingly magical prowess in the face of truly terrifying Constitutional stakes. Day-Lewis is maybe the only actor here (more lived-in than his Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood) where you’re not conscious that he’s wearing a frock coat or fob. Sally Field’s customary shrillness fits the ornery Mary Todd, whose neurasthenic jags force Lincoln into a faintly out-of-time role of domestic comforter and peacemaker.
There is more than a bit of hindsight liberal-conscience streaked through the film, but we get a sense of the multifaceted positions on shifting ground that are required of a politician attempting to effect change—the unfashionable notion of representative democracy, most bluntly stated by Jones’s Stevens, leading people even against their will into a better state of the union. Lincoln lets us perceive, without faking it, the mystery of an extraordinary figure and historical agent.
Opens November 9