Film Review: Lincoln

In the closing days of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln fights to pass a Constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery.

Boasting an impressive pedigree, from its Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter to its Oscar-winning director, Lincoln is a handsomely mounted civics lesson wrapped around a mesmerizing performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. Certain to gather attention during the awards season, the film may be perceived by moviegoers as more medicine than entertainment.

Lincoln isn't a biopic in the conventional sense, but a snapshot of a turbulent point in American politics. Today we revere Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, but the film sets out to show that ending slavery was a messy process. After introducing a large cast of characters (few of them household names), the script focuses on the threats, bribes, compromises and other chicanery that led to the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment.

As envisioned by screenwriter and playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America), Lincoln maneuvers his supporters and opponents from the background while the debate for and against slavery plays out in public. Scenes on the floor of the Senate crackle with energy despite the repugnant racism on display. Deals hammered out in back rooms are necessarily less involving, apart from those with abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). With his haggard face and deep-set eyes, Jones shows the pain Stevens faced when forced to rein in his beliefs to aid Lincoln's cause.

Lincoln is such a legendary figure that it's hard to find a new spin on his character. Kushner portrays him as withdrawn, morbid, beset by grim visions. Linked to a neurotic wife, Lincoln finds the ins and outs of politics both a relief from family pressures and an opportunity to try out cornpone but pointed jokes on his captive listeners. It's an intriguing portrait more in line with recent scholarship than the hagiographies of earlier generations.

In Daniel Day-Lewis' hands, the President becomes a soft-spoken but shrewd backwoods philosopher, a Will Rogers type who toys with his audience. Although not as tall as the real President, the actor is, as usual, always watchable. At key points he is extraordinary, displaying an anger and strength of spirit that seem as close as we can come to how Lincoln actually behaved.

He's surrounded by a weirdly hit-or-miss cast of heavyweight stars like Sally Field (an overwrought Mary Todd Lincoln) and second-tier actors like James Spader, who offers dubious comic relief as a political fixer. Some casting choices, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's son Robert, or Jackie Earle Haley as a Confederate negotiator, are more distracting than rewarding. Jared Harris makes a very convincing U.S. Grant, but has next to nothing to do in the story.

The cinematography by director Steven Spielberg’s longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski takes backlighting to new extremes, and at times feels at odds with Rick Carter's expansive production design. Apart from the crowded Senate scenes, Lincoln looks overtly theatrical and at times squeaky-clean.

No one can question Spielberg's commitment to the material, nor the importance of what Lincoln has to say. What's surprising is how conventional his storytelling here is. Lincoln has the stately pace and careful diction of a PBS miniseries, not the nerve and brio that were once the director's trademarks. Perhaps he felt the subject demanded a certain amount of reverence. There's no doubt that what Lincoln achieved, and what this film captures in detail, is one of our country's finest moments.