Director: Steven Spielberg
Rating PG-13. Running Time: 2 hours 29 minutes
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln offers an insightful portrait of our 16th president, but the movie is less a biopic and more a study of leadership and the democratic political process — as relevant today as it was in 1865. For that very reason, Lincoln — not exactly epic in scale but definitely deep in verbosity and ideology — will go down in history as an important, accomplished film.
Don't get me wrong. Spielberg does a terrific job producing a nuanced character study of President Lincoln, brilliantly cast in Daniel Day-Lewis. The actor completes his metamorphosis into the 6-foot-4, humble but whip-smart former attorney, mastering what is believed to have been his high-pitched, folksy Kentucky accent. Through his hunched, beast-like gait, the slow but deliberate tip of his head, the easy crinkle of his eyes, Lewis communicates Lincoln's stubborn and gentle sides.
When he swoops up his youngest son, Tad (the adorable Gulliver McGrath from Hugo), we see him as a loving father. And when he indulges the depressive ruminations of Mary (wonderfully portrayed by Sally Field), who lost one son to typhoid and railed against the decision of her eldest, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt of 50/50), to drop out of Harvard and join the Union army, we witness Lincoln the patient, loyal husband.
The assemblage of top-level acting talent portraying the people in the public world around Lincoln is equally spot-on. Tommy Lee Jones makes a feisty, energetic abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. David Strathairn (who played Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck) is appropriately understated as Lincoln's most trusted adviser, Secretary of State William Seward. Hal Holbrook proves a dignified choice for Republican Party founder Preston Blair. John Hawkes (fabulous in this year's The Sessions), Sex, Lies and Videotape's James Spader, and Tim Blake Nelson (of O Brother, Where Art Thou?) portray a trio of unsavory vote buyers whom Lincoln isn't beyond employing to get his objectives met.
It's a masterly ensemble that helps us understand the film's titular character as well as the political process that allows major change — such as the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery — to take place, or not, in Washington.
That Spielberg deeply valued the history lesson part of this long-in-the-making project is significant, and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner (who wrote Munich and the award-winning Angels in America), was smart to focus the material. Adapted partly from Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the film zooms in on the period from January through April 9, 1865, when the president applied every strategy in the book to get the two-thirds vote in the House of Representatives needed to ratify the 13th Amendendment.
This maneuvering occurs against the backdrop of the Civil War — which, while still raging, served as an impetus for freeing the slaves — and, with the victory in the House, accomplishes one of the war's ends. Right, then, that Spielberg offered fewer battlefield scenes and opted instead for more dimly lit, smoky, heavily curtained rooms ablaze with feisty political discourse — illustrating the complexity of finding common ground in Congress when the people are bitterly divided.
Spielberg was brave to infuse his movie with so much dense dialogue instead of dramatic action, and the story line remains gripping enough even at 2-1/2 hours. As for those who might suggest this is another liberal Hollywood director's attempt to manipulate opinion, Spielberg insisted that Lincoln be released after this year's presidential election so as not to influence voters, and he lets the facts of the past speak for themselves. In 1865, the Republicans were the liberals!