Far from being a traditional biographical drama, Lincoln dedicates itself to doing something very few Hollywood films have attempted, much less succeeded at: showing, from historical example, how our political system works in an intimate procedural and personal manner. That the case in point is the hair's-breadth passage by the House of Representatives of the epochal 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and that the principal orchestrator is President Lincoln during the last days of his life endow Steven Spielberg's film with a great theme and subject, which are honored with intelligence, humor and relative restraint.
Tony Kushner's densely packed script has been directed by Spielberg in an efficient, unpretentious way that suggests Michael Curtiz at Warner Bros. in the 1940s, right down to the rogue's gallery of great character actors in a multitude of bewhiskered supporting roles backing up a first-rate leading performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln.
The wall-to-wall talk and lack of much Civil War action might give off the aroma of schoolroom medicine to some, but the elemental drama being played out, bolstered by the prestige of the participants and a big push by Disney, should make this rare film about U.S. history pay off commercially.
Concentrating on the tumultuous period between January 1865 and the conclusion of the Civil War on April 9 and Lincoln's assassination five days later, this is history that mostly plays out in wood-paneled rooms darkened by thick drapes and heavy furniture and in the intimate House chamber where the strength of anti-abolitionist Democrats will be tested against Lincoln's moderates and the more zealous anti-slavery radicals of the young Republican Party.
The stiffest challenge facing Kushner was to lay out enough exposition in the early going to give viewers their bearings while simultaneously jump-starting the film's dramatic movement. Quite a bit of information must be dropped in quickly, but the estimable playwright manages it by plausibly inserting it into the characters' vivid conversation.
Particularly helpful are the intimate talks between Lincoln and his most valued adviser, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), as well as with his party's founder Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook).
Fundamentally unhappy in family life with his almost continually complaining wife, Mary (a very good Sally Field), who despairs of being condemned to "four more years in this terrible house," and oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a college lad desperate to enlist in the Army over his parents' objections, Lincoln seems to find the greatest pleasure in spinning amusing life-lesson yarns dating to his lawyering days. The film accrues much-needed levity from these interludes: By the third or fourth time Lincoln embarks on one of his tales, the polite attention paid by his listeners has descended to "here he goes again" eye-rolling.
As he demonstrated in Angels in America, Kushner, who co-wrote Munich for Spielberg, is adept at juggling a huge number of characters without confusion. But increasingly, attention focuses on Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a lifelong activist for absolute equality among the races who is philosophically opposed to going along with a watered-down law. The loss of his and other radical Republicans' support would spell disaster for Lincoln.
As Walt Whitman said of Lincoln, "He contained multitudes," and Day-Lewis' sly, slow-burn performance wonderfully fulfills that description. Gangly and grizzled, this Lincoln plainly shows his humble origins. With astonishing physical resemblance to the real man, Day-Lewis excels when shifting into Lincoln's mode of frisky storyteller.
But he also is a hard-nosed negotiator. A scene in which he hashes things out with his Cabinet (the single most explicit evocation of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, credited as a partial source for the screenplay) vividly exhibits his skills in action.
The dramatic, raucous vote on the 13th Amendment is exhilarating and unexpectedly humorous, with much shouting and fist-waving, fence-straddling Democrats being shamed by their colleagues and a gallery audience (including African-Americans) hanging on every "yea" and "nay," climaxed by the exaltation of victory.
Other than Day-Lewis, acting honors go to Jones, who clearly relishes the rich role of Stevens and whose crusty smarts prove formidable and funny. Very much a good guy here, Stevens in earlier cinematic days always was portrayed as an extremist villain, as in The Birth of a Nation. Further helping matters is a mostly subdued score by John Williams, whose over-the-top contribution to 2011's War Horse proved so counterproductive to that film's effect.
Spielberg directs in a to-the-point, self-effacing style, with only minor instances of artificially inflated emotionalism and a humor that mostly undercuts eruptions of self-importance. It's a conscientious piece of work very much in service of the material, in the manner of the old Hollywood pros, without frills or grandiosity. At the same time, it lacks that final larger dimension and poetic sense such as can be found in John Ford's great 1939 movie Young Mr. Lincoln, to which Spielberg's film is a biographical and thematic bookend.
Opens: Friday, Nov. 9 (Disney)
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones
Director: Steven Spielberg Rated PG-13, 149 minutes