Daniel Day-Lewis as the titular American president is warm yet flinty and infinitely watchable in yet another amazingly chameleonic performance in his long and storied career. He manages to evade the trap of most historical biopics – he is neither overly reverential nor artistically self-indulgent. And he is most assuredly not some wax figure in Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.”
Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln is a fully realized, at times lovable, always affecting flesh-and-blood creation. I challenge anyone to read about Lincoln after watching this movie and NOT hear Day-Lewis’ voice in your head or visualize the mischievous, twinkly fire in his eyes.
The film is set against the backdrop of the Civil War (no shock there) and focuses on the political machinations required to have the 13th Amendment pass the House of Representatives, where it has been stuck for the better part of a year. Lincoln realizes that, if the Civil War ends before the Amendment’s passage, he might not ever amend the Constitution to prevent slavery forevermore.
Needless to say, Beltway (was it called the “Beltway” in those days?) backstabbing and hijinks ensue, and anyone who has lived in America in the past twelve years will reflect “the more things change…the more they stay the same.” Neither Spielberg nor screenwriter Tony Kushner proselytize (though there is speechifyin’-a-plenty) but the ugliness of watching entitled white dudes debating the finer points of social issues for which they have no real skin in the game is like deja vu all over again.
The supporting cast is a who’s who of America’s finest players, from always delightful David Strathairn to a gonzo-fun James Spader who seems to be channeling Robert Downey, Jr., at his most drug-addled. Lee Pace of ABC’s short-lived Pushing Daisies is fun as a posturing, preening Congressman opposed to the Amendment, and Jackie Earle Haley continues his run of great late-career performances as the peace-seeking Confederate Veep, literally left cooling his heals on a riverboat as Lincoln pushes the Amendment through.
Sally Field as Mary Todd-Lincoln is adequate, and I’m not sure if her part was a bit underwritten or if I have just seen her return to the same actorly well a few too many times. Kushner seems to be channeling a postmodern perspective on the Lincolns’ marriage/family through every bit of Field’s dialogue, and she does yeoman’s work making it sound natural but at times it still seems stilted.
The film also suffers from about four endings too many. We know what happens to Lincoln in the weeks and months following the Amendment’s passage, and, trying to cram all of that detail into what is more-or-less an extended diorama-like montage at the film’s conclusion detracts. And, of course, Spielberg can’t help but include his trademark fairy tale mythologizing here and there – it is ok, but the film is so strong otherwise that I could have done without those vintage touches.
But the best moments of the film come at the hands of two old pros who don’t share a minute of screen time: Tommy Lee Jones as Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. Both bring gravitas and pixie dust to their roles, more than holding their own with Day-Lewis. Their characters leap from the pages of history books and very quickly feel like people you have known personally for years. Absolutely remarkable work here.