Steven Spielberg has talked for years about doing a film on Abraham Lincoln, but it turns out that when he finally got around to doing it, the finished movie feels less like his than it does the screenwriter’s -- Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner.
The movie stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president, focusing on the last few months of Lincoln’s life as he tries to manipulate Congress into passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would allow people to vote regardless of race and officially end slavery. Simultaneously, he attempts to bring about a peaceful end to the Civil War. These two goals appear to be mutually exclusive, a point established in an early scene where Lincoln confers with his most trusted political advisor, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn).
The film is so focused on the political process -- the horse-trading, deception, and arm-twisting Lincoln and Seward perform to achieve their goals -- that it feels not unlike an extended episode of The West Wing. However, instead of Aaron Sorkin’s ping-pong, Mamet-inspired patter, we are treated to Tony Kushner’s almost Shakespearean dialogue. The characters speak in a formal yet often flowery vernacular that’s invested with both remarkable imagery and witty insults, and Spielberg has assembled a flawless cast who each bring out the music in Kushner’s words.
First among equals is, of course, two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor of uncommon skill who manages to evoke Lincoln in all his honor and glory without once making him appear like a wax figure. This is a living and breathing human being who yearns to do the right thing in every instance, but is ripped to shreds emotionally when he has to deal with his emotionally high-strung, grieving wife (Sally Field).
To rally people to his cause at different points during the film, Lincoln delivers a Christlike parable about some historical event or an anecdote from his own life, and Day-Lewis spins these yarns with such folksy authority that the audience in the theater is sucked into his rhetorical magic just as inevitably as the characters he’s speaking to onscreen. We hang on his every word, just as we do a commanding performance in live theater.
The whole ensemble is arguably one of the greatest casts ever assembled. Tommy Lee Jones gets some of the best lines as an irascible congressman who has fought his whole career to give slaves both freedom and full citizenship -- it’s the kind of performance that gets people nominated for Supporting Acting awards. James Spader steals all of his scenes playing a libidinous, extroverted political middleman responsible, along with a pair of cronies played by Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes, for making the deals with politicians Lincoln can’t be seen doing himself. Each time any of the actors open their mouths, you marvel at how right they are for the part, and how gloriously they put across Kushner’s lines.
In large part because the dialogue is both so good and so plentiful, Lincoln is closer to a play than a movie, and this doesn’t always work to Spielberg’s strengths as a director. With words this beautiful, very little is needed to augment them, so most attempts to underscore the dialogue with say a symbolic thunder clap or overdone strings feel like a mistake, though he never smothers the movie in melodrama. The single biggest flaw is that they don’t stick the landing. There’s a superb shot that the movie should end on, but the film goes on for another ten minutes giving us scenes that we thankfully don’t expect, yet, at the same time, we don’t really want.
Spielberg and longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski light the performers in ways that accentuate their earnestness, underscoring the filmmaker’s obvious reverence for the material without turning these legendary figures into simple symbols of good. All of the characters remain troubled, three-dimensional people, and that turns out to be the best element of the movie, because Kushner manages to invest us in these people and their desires. What could easily have become a dry civics lesson is in fact loaded with laughs, inspiring triumphs, a subtle but undeniable awe for one of the country’s defining figures, and some of the richest language you can find at the movies. It’s a superior achievement for Kushner, and makes for one of the best of Spielberg’s "serious" movies.