There are few dramaturgical tasks as difficult or as thankless as telling the life story of a Great Man (or Woman), particularly when that historical figure has become the sort of legendary icon featured in national monuments and on currency.
Wisely, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (“Munich,” “Angels in America”) have avoided making “Lincoln” into a traditional biography — there’s no homework on the back of a shovel in coal, no rail-splitting, no debating Stephen A. Douglas. Instead, working from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” the film abandons a macro approach, focusing instead on the events of January 1865 and allowing Lincoln’s actions during that period to spell out everything that made him such a legend.
The film opens with an intense battle sequence that suggests we’re about to get “Saving Private Ryan” with horses and bayonets, when in reality the rest of the movie is going to be conversations and negotiations. (It’s like how “Whiteout” put Kate Beckinsale in a shower scene in the first ten minutes to make up for the fact that she’d be cloaked in a parka for the rest of the film.)
After the battle, President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) talks to his troops, including black soldiers who wonder how much of the freedom they’re fighting for will be coming their way after the war, and white 19th-century fanboys who quote the Gettysburg Address back to him, verbatim. The Civil War is winding down, Lincoln has been re-elected, and before his inauguration, it is his intent to get enough votes in Congress to pass the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery.
Most of “Lincoln” concerns itself with the political machinations involved, from hiring lobbyists (played by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) to offer government jobs to Democrats in return for their votes to waylaying a delegation of Confederates led by CSA vice president Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) to prevent them from arriving in Washington until after the legislation passes.
There are some interludes involving Lincoln’s personal life, mainly involving his son Robert’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) desire to join the army, which makes the president’s wife Mary (Sally Field) put even more pressure on him to end the war quickly lest they have to deal with the death of a second son, but for the most part, this is a movie about back-room politics.
You don’t have to be a C-SPAN junkie to find this kind of legislative sausage-making interesting — take the songs out of “1776,” for instance, and it’s a story about getting the original Continental Congress to unanimously sign the Declaration of Independence. In a way, “Lincoln” almost feels like a sequel to that movie; the Founding Fathers kicked the can of slavery down the road to appease the southern colonies, and “Lincoln” sees those chickens come home to roost a mere 89 years later.
Kushner has proven himself a master at making tricky material palatable: “Angels in America,” after all, offers a lot more laughs than you’d imagine from a story about AIDS, Mormons and Jews. He paints Lincoln as a smart politician and devoted husband and father with a weakness for anecdotes (driving his cabinet up the wall with them, in fact), and the movie manages that trick of creating suspense even though we already know the outcome.
This is one of those films where every time a new personage appears on screen, it’s a face you recognize; the closing credits should just read, “Co-starring the Screen Actors Guild.” There’s not a clunker in the bunch, but this is Day-Lewis’ show all the way. You forget that you’re watching an actor you know playing a larger-than-life figure; Day-Lewis both disappears into the role and makes Lincoln tenable and empathetic. The voice may occasionally suggest Walter Brennan, but nothing about the performance ever feels forced or fake.
The dreadful trailer makes “Lincoln” look like an awful collection of Spielbergian excesses, including swelling John Williams moments (admittedly, there are one or two) and Janusz Kaminski’s honey-baked lighting (OK, granted, it appears, but not too often), not to mention Tommy Lee Jones’ terrible wig (which actually winds up being organic in his memorable turn as Thaddeus Stevens). Don’t let the marketing campaign keep you from seeing one of the best American movies this year, and Spielberg’s finest work in decades.