A bearded wraith, his brow etched with grooves, skulks around in the dead of night. Tall and bent, he’s a chilling figure in a cold, dark house.
His house is the White House, and the wraith is Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States. In “Lincoln” – Steven Spielberg’s penetrating portrait of a nation’s leader at a moment of epic crisis – Daniel Day-Lewis delivers an utterly extraordinary performance, his voice aquiver, his body angular but pliant, moving with a creaking, spongy gait down the corridors of the iconic residence on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Civil War has taken hundreds of thousands of lives. And Lincoln’s determined campaign to outlaw the trade in human beings (“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” he wrote) is being thwarted by a recalcitrant Congress.
“Lincoln” begins with bayonets and muskets, soldiers of the Union and the Confederacy in close, miserable combat, but for the most part, the action in Spielberg’s handsome piece of history is verbal, emotional, electric. With a screenplay by Tony Kushner, adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” the film masterfully captures the dual dilemmas facing the president in the final months of his life: how to bring the war between the states to an end and heal a broken land, and how to eradicate slavery, once and for all.
And though his goals were lofty, the country-lawyer-turned-commander in chief was savvy enough to know that deals needed to be made, scores settled, patronage jobs promised, if he was to win over the anti-abolitionist Democrats in the House of Representatives.
And so, “Lincoln” is as much about the process of our political system – then, and (yes) now – as it is about the people who preside over it, who manipulate it, try to master it. This is one of Spielberg’s key achievements: that he introduces a gang of boisterous, contentious statesmen, pols, and lobbyists (William Seward, Thaddeuus Stevens, Edwin Stanton, Preston Blair ) and manages to keep track of who they are, and how they are allied with or opposed to their president.
But “Lincoln” is also a human story, and Day-Lewis brings his subject to life with grace, humor and soul. The president was, by history’s accounting, a wild man of a storyteller, and there are wonderful scenes here where Lincoln veers off on colorful narrative jags, regaling soldiers, or telegraph operators, or members of his Cabinet, or his wife, with metaphoric rambles whose implications are not always clear.
Perhaps it’s the alchemical way the actor gets under the skin of his character, but Day-Lewis’ channeling of Honest Abe makes everyone else’s job all the more challenging. Tommy Lee Jones, as the Pennsylvania “Radical Republican” Thaddeus Stevens, is up to the task, with his wrinkles and wigs and wry, watchful manner; Jared Harris makes a third-act appearance, puffing on a cigar and bringing a battle-worn wisdom to the part of Ulysses S. Grant.
But Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Lincoln’s wife and eldest son, never really get their footing. Field, especially, has trouble finding the center of gravity for the slightly loony Mary Todd Lincoln. And Gordon-Levitt, as Robert, the son who wants to enlist – but who is forbidden to do so by his personal commander in chief – broods and sulks accordingly. Yet this filial drama seems insignificant, somehow. Lincoln’s relationship with his younger son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), is more credible and compelling – the president curls up alongside his sleeping boy on a rug in front of a White House fireplace, or watches as Tad surveys a collection of tintype portraits of slaves.
But never mind a few misguided casting choices; “Lincoln” is an exceptionally good film, elevated by a superhuman star turn, and by the energy its director displays in telling a story that doesn’t rely on special effects.
Instead, it relies on a pivotal moment in America’s history, looking at it through the eyes of the man at the maelstrom’s center, trying to wield his might, and do what he believes is right.