Three years before he became president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln accepted the Illinois Republican Party’s senatorial nomination by preaching that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln was, of course, referring to the wound of slavery, which severed the nation at the waist before he successfully abolished it in the months before his assassination (possibly by vampires). The truth of his words was realized in blood during the most violent conflict in American history, and it has proven to be one of the enduring lessons of our country’s most agreeably heroized presidency. With that in mind, it’s hard to forgive Steven Spielberg’s portrait of that same presidency’s final days for being so frustratingly conflicted about the story it wants to tell. Spielberg’s smallest film since Always, Lincoln paints our sixteenth president as a single-minded man isolated by the incalculable burden of his role in this nation’s future, but Tony Kushner’s script seems uncomfortable with such an intimate scale, shoehorning in a mess of subplots and needless digressions that work to distract the movie from doing what it does best.
Lincoln ultimately compromises as a musty (if occasionally rousing) legal drama about the passing of the 13th Amendment -- erudite but bloated, the film fails to make the most of its impeccable cast, wasting a Daniel Day-Lewis performance that’s so hypnotizing and human it could be confused for a resurrection.
Like the vast majority of biopics that are worth a damn, Lincoln restrains itself to covering a small sliver of its subject’s life, beginning in January of 1865 and ending (long after it should) in the days following Lincoln’s death that April. Opening with blasts of cannon fire that don’t portend the chatty courtroom saga to come, Spielberg’s film introduces us to the president at the height of his approval and celebrity -- in fact, the first scene of the film finds Lukas Haas and that little Leo DiCaprio clone from Chronicle reciting the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln like kids today might spontaneously quote from a movie when they happen across their favorite actor.
He’s Abraham Lincoln: Vote Hunter. The pivotal event of Spielberg’s film is the pivotal event of Lincoln’s life: The passage of the 13th Amendment, which provided freedom to all slaves nationwide. Like a high-stakes episode of The West Wing, Lincoln’s primary dramatic engine is the process by which the president’s underlings shake out the requisite number of votes required to push a bill through Congress. Every time that the movie threatens to become a true character study, it cuts away to amusing but redundant asides in which the likes of John Hawkes and James Spader (both crushing it, as per usual) try to root out key swing votes. These bits eventually pay off with the film’s most crowd-pleasing moments, but the juice just ain’t worth the squeeze.
Before long, it becomes clear that, while everything orbits around the title character, Lincoln is essentially an ensemble piece. For every thread that earns its keep -- Tommy Lee Jones essentially plays himself as Thaddeus Stevens, but he does so to brilliant effect -- there’s one that distracts from the film’s righteous moral velocity. Joseph Gordon-Levitt puts on his game face (complete with a killer mustache) to appear as Lincoln’s eldest son, but his odiously dull itch to enlist as a soldier recalls that obnoxious kid from War of the Worlds, and his character is abruptly abandoned at the end of the second act in order to streamline the third.
But whenever things become so scattered or prosaic that it feels like you’re watching an ill-begotten sequel to Amistad, Daniel Day-Lewis shows up to set the ship straight. To the surprise of exactly no one, Day-Lewis inhabits the guy like he’s already spent 52 years in his shriveled skin. Oscar season’s favorite chameleon, Day-Lewis absolutely disappears beneath that famous hat and beard -- his Lincoln is immediately more of a human than an icon, a man like any other save for his virtue and his task. He’s wry and contemplative, a windbag prone to stories that were longer than his speeches. He desperately struggles to be an available father for his youngest boy, but is also prone to indignantly raging at his wife (Sally Field as Mary Todd), who’s still reeling from the death of their son, William.
Day-Lewis wrests Lincoln from our nascent American mythology, reanimating him as a person of flesh, blood and inconceivable responsibility. It’s a restrained performance, so deeply resistant to theatrics that the slow dolly shots Spielberg keeps slinging across the actors face seem incongruously overcooked in how they capture a man of such simple sentiment. Through Day-Lewis, we see how Lincoln’s tremendous foresight allowed him to appreciate the true extent to which the 13th Amendment would shape millions of lives for generations to come, and we feel how Lincoln was tormented by the blood on his hands and the future on his mind. Nodding to John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, Day-Lewis never forgets the president’s background as a lawyer, and some of the character’s most fascinating moments find him subverting the word of the law in order to accomplish an absolute good. These bits resound with echoes of Oskar Schindler, and Spielberg shows that he still has a rare gift for exploring the moral equivalency behind history’s most profound heroics.
Even when Lincoln is offscreen, his presence is still felt. His long shadow -- made literal by Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography -- looms over the scenes of Congress, in which Spielberg’s direction is quietly elegant and evocative, abandoning the kinetic movements and layers of focus that bear his signature in favor of a more traditional style that recalls the likes of Otto Preminger. As a result, Lincoln sometimes feels like the best movie ever made for A&E (John Williams’ tossed off score only adds to this impression). While the occasional exterior shots accomplish little beyond screaming “Look! We have scale!,” Rick Carter’s stellar production design is a veritable time machine, and Kaminski’s lighting illustrates the subtler side of his genius, Spielberg’s regular DP opting for an under-lit and natural look that refuses to cheat Congress of their oppressive ambivalence; streams of white light blast through every window, helping the impression that Congress is ruling from on high, condemning the pettiest among them for their vain theatrics while the future of the world hangs in the balance.
But none of those moments in the Congress, as rousing as they are, feel revelatory in the slightest. Kushner’s script has no trouble eking suspense from known fact (we may have a black president, but you’ll still be biting your nails as the cast announces their votes on the 13th Amendment), but Spielberg’s smallest movie in nearly 30 years is still too big. Had the film buckled down on Lincoln, it could have been a remarkable study of a good man who gamed the system in order to better the world, but the film’s outsized vision makes it feel like a problematically narrow portrait of a nation fighting for the ideals upon which it was founded.
Lincoln’s kaleidoscopic approach invites you to question why there are so few roles for African-Americans, or why Thaddeus Steven’s wife is used as a punchline. The movie has the opportunity to be precise, and instead it tries to be definitive. As a result, Lincoln is a stirring history lesson, sure to be a new favorite film for substitute teachers across the country, but a film so determined to help us remember our history can’t afford to be so easily forgotten.
Note: This review is based on an unfinished version of the film that screened at the New York Film Festival. It officially arrives in theaters on November 9.