Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a magnificent analysis of political process, less a biopic and more an examination of how laws get passed and how gamesmanship stands at the heart of the American partisan game. It typifies how little has changed, charting the deal-making and chattering that takes place behind the Washington scenes with pragmatic precision.
Spielberg, no stranger to schmaltz, astutely avoids the sort of wide historical melodrama that often sinks movies like this. He tapers his vision to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and precisely draws on the final four months of the United States President’s life. Spielberg wanted to adapt Goodwin’s book since 1999, finally turning to screenwriter Tony Kushner to deliver the goods.
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as the 16th President of the United States. The film opens in January of 1865 with Lincoln’s efforts underway to pass the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This would abolish slavery. With the Civil War expected to draw to a close, Lincoln worries that the Amendment might not pass and works to squeeze it through before it can be defeated by slave-loving states.
The movie deals with lame duck Democrats and radical Republicans, illustrating Lincoln’s need to deal with both sides to get the Amendment passed. Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) is a staunch abolitionist pushing for the passage of the bill, while Republican Party founder Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) is a necessary influence.
Lincoln discards Spielberg’s sometimes overbearing style in favour of low-lit, small sequences involving the arresting American leader. Scenes including his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), shed light on Lincoln as a family man. And struggles with his son, Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), illustrate how the Civil War has become a personal matter for Honest Abe.
Much has been said about Day-Lewis’ depiction of Abraham Lincoln. He disappears into the role, embodying the POTUS with studied self-possession and humanity. Everything, from bearing to vocal tones, seems calculated. His Lincoln, a man of tales and patterns, is perhaps smarter than he lets on. At the same time, he is a man of surprising modesty and grain.
The rest of the cast fleshes out well, too. David Straitharn is wonderful as the “magnanimous spirit” that is Secretary of State William H. Seward. James Spader and John Hawkes make for excellent Republican Party operatives, while Jackie Earle Haley seems ideal (perhaps that’s not a compliment) as Alexander H. Stephens, the Veep of the Confederate states.
Lincoln is a talk-heavy tale of governmental maneuvering, an account of what happens when bills need to get passed and votes need to be changed with the right deal-making. It, like Goodwin’s book, explores a political genius at work. Every tale the POTUS tells comes weighted with resolve, no easy task in a parcel where men love to hear themselves speak.
Spielberg paints a grandiloquent yet low-key Washington with lots of shades of brown, a milieu where contempt is out in the open and big verbal flourishes are common. Lincoln bravely and methodically explores the theatrical mechanisms of policymaking, probing the words men say and the apologies they make to avoid such fiddly things as morality and conscience.
In that regard, Lincoln is perfect movie-making. Spielberg is perhaps the only director suited to pull off such a thing. He is a master raconteur when he’s on his game and this distillation of his showier effects turns out to do great service to one of the greatest world leaders of all time.