The idea of a Daniel Day-Lewis/Steven Spielberg/Abraham Lincoln combination seems so obvious that it’s almost a little suspect it didn’t happen before. Adding to the inevitability of the situation is the fact that Spielberg has delivered everything you could imagine from that pairing: superlative performances by an unbelievably stacked cast, a healthy dose of Spielbergian daddy issues and about a dozen scenes of old white dudes with ridiculous facial hair giving impassioned speeches in amber-lit, wood-panelled rooms. Lincoln is the Honest Abe movie everyone expected from Spielberg, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
The film focuses on the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, more specifically on his efforts to pass an amendment that would abolish slavery and hopefully end the Civil War. Faced with an unlikely if not impossible victory, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn) hire three men (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and a blustering, showboating James Spader) to convince the undecided and convincible in Congress to switch sides.
Lincoln’s son Robert (a largely wasted Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who mostly serves as a visual representation of the requisite Spielbergian father-son relationship but spends many scenes standing silently in the background) wants to join the Army instead of pursuing his law studies, his wife Mary (Sally Field) has never gotten quite over the death of their other son William, and staunch abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (a cosmically grumpy Tommy Lee Jones) screams at everyone as history is made.
Although visibly streamlined and lightened to fit into a three-act structure, Lincoln doesn’t make too many waves or attempt to rewrite history much; it’s by and large the reverent biopic I’d come to expect from Spielberg. Tony Kushner’s script favours long monologues and dimly lit, musty interiors over bombast and epic sweep, but thankfully Spielberg has armed himself with a murderers’ row of craggy-faced character actors to deliver them (none more hilariously or more craggily than Jones, who steals most of the scenes he’s in). For a movie about people sitting around arguing about policy, it’s surprisingly gripping and funny.
Day-Lewis is, of course, incredible in the lead, imbuing the iconic president with a humanity and humility that doesn’t transpire on the five-dollar bill he’s currently best known for. His stooped, reedy-voiced Lincoln is so far removed from Day-Lewis’ last iconic role in There Will Be Blood that he might as well be a different actor.
Of all of Spielberg’s films, Lincoln most resembles Amistad with its terrific cast, florid monologues and vast array of powdered wigs. It also resembles that film because it sits alongside it right in the middle of Spielberg’s filmography, a solid and dependable movie that won’t ruffle many feathers. As a presidential biopic, it soundly trumps Oliver Stone’s output but it remains firmly entrenched in the prestigious, Oscar-baiting hole it quite happily dug for itself. ■