Last month, a critic friend of mine tweeted his rapturous initial reaction upon seeing a surprise screening of Lincoln: “Spielberg’s Lincoln is the best film Roberto Rossellini never made. Also one of the best Spielberg did make.”
Many more reviews have poured in since that tweet, but few have really nailed so succinctly what I found so distinctive about what could’ve so easily been just another period piece, dress-me-up biopic vanity project parlayed into cheap, easy Oscar buzz. (Sorry, my bad faith spilleth over owing to a recent viewing of the seriously disappointing Hitchcock, but more about that in a couple weeks.)
Lincoln, as realized by Steven Spielberg and playwright Tony Kushner (who previously collaborated on 2005’s Munich), is both exacting in its attention to detail and completely immersed in the naturalness of its recreation, much like the historical recreations of Rossellini or, more strongly, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
Rather than follow the full life and times of Abraham Lincoln’s journey from the log cabin to the business end of John Wilkes Booth’s pistol, Lincoln restricts its depiction of the 16th U.S. President to the few months he spent toward the bitter end of the Civil War scraping his way toward the congressional passage of the 13th Constitutional Amendment, which barred slavery.
The drive to avoid histrionics begins with a curiously and thankfully low-key Daniel Day-Lewis, who imbues his Honest Abe with a reedy, regressed voice and a slow, hunching gate that suggests few presidents endured sharper premature aging than the one who faced the unequivocal division of his province. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln leads only occasionally through blunt force of will, even as he is surrounded by spectacularly obnoxious, fumy lawmakers — even from within his own political party.
Lincoln’s drive to put the 13th Amendment on the books before the end of the war (and the reinstatement of the Southern congressmen who would surely torpedo its chances in the U.S. House) proves a seemingly insurmountable political minefield. The Democratic Party bloc stands in almost united opposition to Lincoln after nearly four years of war. The Republican Party is torn between apologists who seek conciliation with the South and progressives who hope (rather than fear) that freedom from slavery would be but the first step forward toward total racial equality.
Foremost among the latter group is Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, played with supreme trash-talking elan by Tommy Lee Jones (if anyone’s coasting toward an Oscar nomination from this incredible cast — and the entire supporting actor wing could justifiably come from this one film — let it be Jones). Stevens’s struggle to swallow his true intentions and Lincoln’s instructions to play politics and couch the amendment’s intent in nebulous terms open to future interpretation (“equality under the law”) form the core of the film’s political message, one which stresses patience, tolerance and maybe just a little behind-the-scenes greasing, wheeling and dealing.
The collaboration of Kushner and Spielberg here inverts the dynamic they shared on Munich, where Spielberg carried Kushner’s ideas to thrilling, flamboyant ends. Here, Spielberg keeps his cards unnervingly close for nearly two and a half hours, letting his stable of seasoned performers bring Kushner’s declarative dialogue — from the bloviations of the House to Lincoln’s casual sidesteps into storytime — to surprising vitality and never overtly expressing the script’s implications for today’s cultural Civil War.
Lincoln is both an unqualified artistic success and a clarion call for political rationality. In today’s marketplace, it may as well have been made by E.T.