For anyone who cringed just a little while watching the trailer for “Lincoln” and worried that it might be a near-parody of a Steven Spielberg film, with its heartfelt proclamations, sentimental tones and inspiring John Williams score, fret not.
The movie itself is actually a lot more reserved than that — more a wonky, nuts-and-bolts lesson about the way political machinery operates than a sweeping historical epic that tries to encapsulate the entirety of the revered 16th president's life. That was a smart move on the part of Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, a Pulitzer prize-winner for the play “Angels in America” who also wrote the script for Spielberg's “Munich.”
Talky and intimate but also surprisingly funny, “Lincoln” focuses on the final four months of Abraham Lincoln's life as he fought for the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, and strove to unite a nation torn apart by the Civil War. (It is based partly on Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-seller “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”)
This tumultuous period provides a crucible to display everything Lincoln was made of, both his folksiness and fortitude. He tells long, winding anecdotes to enlighten and charm those around him but also forcefully hammers home his points to get what he wants.
Totally unsurprisingly, Daniel Day-Lewis inhabits the role fully. He disappears into it with small details and grand gestures, from his carriage to the cadence of his speech, and the Academy should probably just give him the best-actor Oscar now and get it over with.
Although “Lincoln” itself often feels too conservative, stagey and safe, Day-Lewis' performance is full of so many clever choices that he keeps it compelling.
Of course, the film has all the top-notch technical hallmarks we've come to expect from Spielberg: It's handsomely staged and impeccable in its production design. But despite the dramatic streaks of misty white light streaming from the outdoors into these dark, solemn rooms of power — a signature of his longtime collaboration with Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski — “Lincoln” is much more muted from an aesthetic standpoint than last year's equally old-fashioned “War Horse.”
This is a movie that's easier to admire than love; it's impressive but not exactly moving.
But it is unexpectedly humorous. The process of cajoling and coercing members of Congress to vote for passage of the amendment provides several estimable character actors with wonderfully showy roles. Tommy Lee Jones does a spin on his cantankerous screen persona as the quick-witted, fiercely verbal Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, Thaddeus Stevens, a strong proponent of abolition. David Strathairn is the sharp-minded and condescending Secretary of State William Seward, who was Lincoln's foe before becoming a member of his cabinet.
There are almost too many great supporting players in juicy, tantalizingly small parts. You'd love to see more from all of them, including Lee Pace as a grandstanding Democrat railing against the amendment on the House of Representatives floor, Michael Stuhlbarg as a conflicted congressman, Hal Holbrook as the powerful Lincoln ally Preston Blair and Jackie Earle Haley as the vice president of the Confederacy.
And then there are James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson as the cynical, glad-handing trio hired to lobby the toughest Democrats and secure those final, crucial votes; their banter is a consistent source of laughs.
It gets to the point where major figures in Lincoln's life — Sally Field as his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as his elder son who's eager to see combat — don't register as powerfully as they should because the script is just so packed.
And that effort to contain so much history in one feature film especially extends to the ending. This is no spoiler — we all know what happened to Lincoln — but there's a beautifully photographed moment that occurs before his assassination that would have left the film on the most perfectly lovely, poignant note.
Instead, it keeps going — and becomes the movie you might have feared “Lincoln” would be.