Four score and seven films—at least—might have been contrived from events in the life of Abraham Lincoln, but in Lincoln, Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner home in on a narrow segment: a few short months in 1865, before Lincoln was shot. The focus is not on the civil war that took hundreds of thousands of American lives or the assassination that came less than a week after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. (Lincoln’s death is the film’s tragic dénouement, not its climax.) The prism through which Spielberg and Kushner view the sixteenth president of the United States is politics—the fine and coarse art of persuasion, the machine in a democracy through which ideals are translated into legislation and legislation into law.
By Spielbergian standards, Lincoln is a nuanced, knotty, bridled piece of filmmaking, an exercise in restraint. But Spielberg is a great film artist, and that tone evokes the spirit of his subject—the deep sadness, the expansive sardonic wit, the hardscrabble lawyerly intelligence. By the time the movie ends, you don’t feel as if you know Lincoln—few, in his own time, claimed to know him. But you feel as if you know what it was like to be in his presence. And so an icon (it’s a measure of how promiscuously that word is thrown around that it seems inadequate for one of history’s truly iconic figures) has become a man—and, startlingly, within reach.
All this despite a stinkeroo first dialogue scene—a real comedown after the chilling prologue, a rain-soaked skirmish in which black Union soldiers go bayonet to bayonet with rebels and no man dies without an agonizing struggle. Then Spielberg introduces the president (Daniel Day-Lewis) from behind his monumental head, gazing down at a pair of African-American survivors, one awestruck, the other inclined to press his case (respectfully) for Negroes to be paid the same as whites. The exchange sounds both too modern (“You got springy hair for a white man!”) and too corny (they and others quote at length from the Gettysburg Address). But in its clunky way, it serves a purpose. Lincoln is already halfway to a memorial—which gives him more pause than anyone. And it quickly establishes the central issue. The Emancipation Proclamation freed black people but didn’t make them equal. Actually, it didn’t even free them, fully. It was an executive order in a time of war—and the war was almost over. Hence the need for the Thirteenth Amendment, which doesn’t yet have the two-thirds majority to pass.
Early on, there’s a lot of political shoptalk, not all of it easy to follow, especially with Day-Lewis looking so distractingly Lincolnesque. There’s no record of Lincoln’s voice or of how he moved, but Day-Lewis captures what contemporaries described as a mysterious private sadness—as well as the ability to shake it off and be suddenly open and generous. It’s a running joke here (as it was, apparently, in life) that Lincoln would launch into an illustrative anecdote or quotation at the drop of a stovepipe hat. But those stories are enthralling—and what a beautiful, tall brow the actor has to furrow. Day-Lewis speaks in a soft, cracked voice (with a hint, still, of the sonorous, John Huston–esque quiver he developed for There Will Be Blood), and you can taste Lincoln’s pleasure in choosing each word, in lulling his listeners with indirection before driving the point home—as when he likens his cabinet to “pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters” and declares, “I am the president of the United States, clothed in immense power, and you will procure me these votes!”
He has a formidable team, from David Strathairn’s powerfully prim Seward (once Lincoln’s rival for the Republican presidential nomination) to the trio of lobbyists dispatched to bend ears and twist arms, to bribe and to lie: rangy John Hawkes, swollen-chested mustachioed James Spader, and spring-heeled Tim Blake Nelson. We thrill to their escapades because they’re on Lincoln’s—our—side, but it’s depressing to see what pitiful cowards some of their targets are. (The racist, states’-rights bad guys are Democrats, the liberals Republicans—which means you have to do a little pirouette in your head whenever the party names are dropped.) Tommy Lee Jones, eyes sagging under a thick-locked toupee, has the scene-stealing role as the riotously belligerent abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Counseled to play nice, to say he doesn’t believe that blacks should be equal, only that they should be equal before the law, his Stevens gazes on opponents with the bile rising in his throat, visibly tortured by having to betray his ideals for the sake of a vote. But it is, of course, a vote that will change the course of history—in the right direction.
Lincoln is based (“in part,” say the credits) on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s tome Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which was widely reported to be on Barack Obama’s bedside table before winning the presidency. (As Lincoln reached out to Seward, Obama reached out to Hillary Clinton.) Spielberg had been nursing a Lincoln project for years, but the thrust of Lincoln is no accident after the bruising health-care debate and refusal of any Republican to follow Obama’s lead. Can the film be taken as a smack at Republicans—or a gentle rebuke to Obama, who lacked the Lincolnesque wiles on other fronts to entice his rivals to the table? Either way, it’s a profound lesson for politicians present and future in when to compromise and when to go to the mat.
Given Kushner’s fondness for writing closet cases, it’s no surprise there’s a kinda-sorta hint of Lincoln’s rumored affection for young men. But I didn’t think Abe seemed gay—more like ever so happy. As his wife, Sally Field seems too obviously on a mission to redeem Mary Todd Lincoln from the charge of being a harridan and a nut—Kushner even has her character tell her husband she thinks that history will get her wrong. But I liked her tough little façade and so will you. Lincoln is too sharply focused to deserve the pejorative “biopic” label. It’s splendid enough to make me wish Spielberg would make a “prequel” to this instead of another goddamn Indiana Jones picture. His filmmaking is deceptively simple—the kind of simplicity only a master can achieve. Political speechwriters can learn from that, too.
This review initially ran in the Nov. 12 issue of New York Magazine.