Spielberg's Lincoln Is a Pulse-Pounding Thrill Ride for Policy Wonks
The one thing you have to take from this review of Lincoln, above all else, is that Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Abraham Lincoln is exquisite. Those expecting a stentorian, monumental Lincoln will be disappointed, but those same people would be disappointed by the real-life Lincoln, too: Eyewitness accounts tell us that Lincoln's voice was reedy, that his walk was pigeon-toed and clumsy, and that he often was slouched inward, softly speaking into his own chest, giving him the air of a gigantic question mark. Day-Lewis is less of an actor and more of a journalist, transubstantiating what must be thousands of hours of historical research into flesh and bone. It's the best special effect that you'll see in a movie theater this year.
With that out of the way, how's the rest of Lincoln? It's pretty okay. Screenwriter Tony Kushner has clearly done his research on the president, too. His Lincoln is highly intelligent but hopelessly melancholic; nearly all of his many anecdotes and jokes involve death. (Very early in the movie, Lincoln jokes that his wiry, unkempt hair drove two barbers to suicide. The people he's joking with don't know whether to laugh or offer condolences, but Lincoln's dour jokes aren't intended for anyone but Lincoln, anyway.) And he's first and foremost a political beast, obsessed with the rule of law and the many ways a president can manipulate the rule of law to force his will on the nation.
I suspect that lots of people will be bored to death by Lincoln. It's primarily a story about the passage of the 13th Amendment in Congress, and all the behind-the-scenes bargains that had to be cut in order to coax a sufficient number of pro-slavery Democrats over to the Republican side. It's a movie about politics as it really happens, which means it's mostly about a bunch of men talking. As someone who is obsessed with these kinds of high-stakes rhetorical battles, I couldn't get enough. Teabaggers looking for patriotic America-porn will presumably leave whining about liberal Hollyweird.
Day-Lewis's performance is lightened by a lively supporting cast. Three political fixers sent out on a secret mission to buy Democratic votes are played off as Shakespearean-style comic relief: James Spader, especially, steals a half-dozen scenes as a Falstaffian figure with the unfortunate name of W. N. Bilbo. But the figure who Kushner endows with the best lines is Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, the most rabidly anti-slavery voice in the film. Stevens cuts down anyone who gets in his path—from outright racists to smarmy congressional concern trolls who "worry" that freed slaves won't be able to handle their freedom—with a sharp wit and a withering glare. As Day-Lewis's Lincoln frets behind the scenes with a thick cotton blanket pulled over his shoulders, Jones, surprisingly, provides the heart of the movie.
The restraint that Spielberg shows in Lincoln is commendable. Aside from a too-on-the-nose opening scene and the fact that every African American actor is forced to portray a magical, personality-free fount of Black Dignity, there are very few cheeseball Spielbergian moments. But the script can't maintain its high quality all the way through. The ending, where Kushner feels obliged to touch all the big historical points, is awkward and unsatisfying. Many of the characters drift in and out of the stories like ghosts. (Joseph Gordon-Levitt has very little to do, and Sally Field's Mary Todd Lincoln is given the unfortunate task of delivering an awkward speech about how Mary Todd Lincoln is an underappreciated figure in American history.) But political animals—people who care about politics even during non-presidential-election years—will feast on this movie's dedication to process and to the mundane moments that shape our history.