Its title notwithstanding, Lincoln is an absorbing, intellectual look at the political machinations involved in abolishing slavery, not an exhaustive biopic about Honest Abe.
A trio of truths stand out in this stately film (* * * 1/2 out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday in select cities). First, Daniel Day-Lewis so completely conveys the dignity and shrewd intelligence of Abraham Lincoln, it's as if historical footage has been unearthed and we're watching the Kentucky-born president himself. Second, it's glaringly clear how divisive and hard-fought the effort to end slavery was, not only on the battlefield but in the halls of Washington. Third, and most important, Lincoln was, above all else, committed to the principles upon which the United States was founded.
The film is based in part on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. No revelations about the man surface; mostly, we are privy to the politics of the era and get a compelling view of Lincoln's determination, as well as his ability to surmount hurdles and trounce the opposition in service of a greater good.
The story is tightly focused on a few months in 1865, the final year of the Lincoln presidency. It documents how the president cleverly masterminded the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and thus ended slavery. Those who think wily power-brokering, cynical manipulation and a polarized Congress are modern phenomena will be surprised to see intriguing parallels here. Though Lincoln captures the era with precision, there is a modern resonance to the narrative.
Director Steven Spielberg, a terrific storyteller and action director, reaffirms his talent for drawing nuanced performances from an ensemble cast. Tommy Lee Jones is a standout as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a Republican known for his sarcastic wit, and David Strathairn is excellent as Secretary of State William Seward.
Less impressive is Sally Field who seems miscast as Mary Todd Lincoln. The Day-Lewis/Fields pairing isn't convincing, particularly given that Field is a decade older than Day-Lewis, but Mary Lincoln was a decade younger than her husband.
Day-Lewis' low-key performance succeeds in every way imaginable. Playing a larger-than-life historical figure whose visage audiences are so familiar with presents a special challenge. His transformation is so seamless it's almost spooky.
The story is set as the Civil War rages. In the maelstrom, Lincoln plots a strategy intended to abolish slavery, end the war and reunite the country. His plan is much-criticized, even by his closest advisers. But Lincoln remains resolute. The idea is to persuade lame-duck members of the House of Representatives to pass the unpopular amendment by promising them government posts and other perks. This is no somnolent C-SPAN gathering. Never was a congressional vote so climactic.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) wrote the perfectly calibrated screenplay. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is strikingly beautiful. One of the final scenes of Lincoln walking down a dimly lit White House hall, silhouetted in his trademark hunched posture, is powerfully evocative.
Through this very specific look at a critical time in Lincoln's presidency, Kushner, Spielberg and Day-Lewis work together to present an honest look at America's most revered statesman. Kushner finds an artful way to weave in the texts of the Gettysburg Address and the 13th Amendment, as well as a creative way to present Lincoln's assassination.
Following the death, a eulogizer intones: "Now he belongs to the ages." With its low-key but eloquent approach, this big-screen characterization further burnishes the legacy.