Review

Spielberg's historical thriller depicts shrewd, funny 'Lincoln'

ltoppman@charlotteobserver.comNovember 15, 2012 

  • Lincoln A Cast: Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, Gloria Reuben Director: Steven Spielberg Website: www.thelincolnmovie.com Length: 2 hours, 29 minutes

Steven Spielberg was right to have DreamWorks hold the release of “Lincoln” until after the 2012 presidential election.

The film takes no political side, except to approve of Americans who believed blacks and whites had equal rights – an easy opinion to hold now, but one fiercely fought over 150 years ago. Nor is it a full profile of Abraham Lincoln himself: It covers only the last four months of his life, concentrating on January 1865.

Instead, “Lincoln” provides a dense but absorbing (and easily absorbed) look at the machinations required to pass a constitutional amendment and the unshakable will of the man pushing it forward. And it offers hope for united achievement to a Congress and an American people more divided than they have been for many decades.

Spielberg has never made a more sophisticated and less sentimental picture. He and writer Tony Kushner craft it like a historical thriller: Lincoln and his allies (savory and unsavory) try to squeeze enough votes from Congress to pass the amendment that will outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.

They’re afraid Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in rebellious states, will be ruled a wartime measure to be cast aside when the Civil War is over. They race against time, because a Confederate delegation is slowly coming north to discuss terms of peace.

The movie begins in didactic Spielberg style. A bloody, silent battle rages, and then a black Union soldier reminds Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) of the blazing words he spoke at Gettysburg. Yet the film has only three or four somber “historic” moments, which seem like Spielberg laying his professorial hand on our shoulders. The rest is taut, funny and down-to-earth, and it feels (except for antiquated modes of speech) as if we’d see and hear it on the streets of Washington today.

We get a rounded view of the president. He’s ironic, self-deprecating, authoritative, disapprovingly paternal toward a son who wants to go to war (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), funny in a mildly scatological way, shrewd, a good reader of others’ characters and his own (including his shortcomings). Day-Lewis speaks in a light tenor that sounds believable, but he can summon vocal thunder when rebuking his cabinet or shouting in an argument with his distraught wife (Sally Field).

Yet the film takes time to fill out other characters. Mary Todd Lincoln grieves for her dead son and preoccupied spouse; Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) swallows a thick plug of pride and backs away from radical principles to help the amendment pass; Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) flutters with frustration when Lincoln makes end runs around him; three jolly rogues (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) artfully wheedle anti-slavery votes by promising political payoffs. (They’re sleazy, but politics has rarely been a job for people with the cleanest hands.)

Because the film is about Lincoln, congressmen and their confidants – all white men, of course – introducing a black character as a collective “conscience” might have been a clumsy move. But we see what’s at stake for blacks through Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln’s quiet maid. Her mistress may exult that the amendment will free blacks; Elizabeth (Gloria Reuben) can quietly despair that it doesn’t go further to make the races equal in all ways.

Over the years, Spielberg has assembled a creative team that understands his visions and supports them beautifully: Editor Michael Kahn cuts a battle sequence slowly, for horror, and dialog quickly, for tension. John Williams supplies music in his subtlest elegiac-patriotic vein. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski changes his palette over time, from washed-out colors to richer tones; as Lincoln himself becomes bolder, so does the look of the picture.

Spielberg and Kushner inspired familiar actors to give unfamiliar portrayals. Spader is hilarious as the bloated, jolly cajoler of votes, while the usually sensitive Lee Pace blusters as a fierce foe of the amendment.

Day-Lewis, an Everest among actors, disappears into his part after the first few scenes. He makes us forget all others who have played the part or could have played it this time – pace Liam Neeson – while making us think about Abraham Lincoln in a new way. How many performers could have hoped to do that?

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