Review: 'Lincoln' Is a Painless History Lesson

Steven Spielberg’s "Lincoln" carries the weight of history on its shoulders like a marble mantle, and sometimes – like its central figure, a leggy stick-bug of a man who shouldered one of our country’s biggest moral burdens -- it stoops under all that heaviness. And yet Spielberg is enough of a showman to prevent "Lincoln" from seeming merely good for you, like spinach. History is made by people, not by figureheads carved in stone, and even if "Lincoln" sometimes belabors its points, there’s still plenty of oxygen in its atmosphere: Its characters, people who lived long ago and who tended to be much more loquacious than a 140-character burst would allow, somehow seem to breathe the same air we do.

Set in 1865 -- and adapted by Tony Kushner from portions of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln -- the picture is a condensed yet detailed account of our 16th president’s push to pass the 13th Amendment, and it holds surprising doses of cinematic drama in its expansive pockets. The picture opens with a rugged, muddy battle sequence whose eerie placidity only makes it seem more brutal – it’s a case of black Union soldiers squaring off against Confederates who have a thousand reasons to resent them, and the outcome is ugly for everybody. Shortly thereafter, two young black Union soldiers stand respectfully before a shadowy figure, giving him the thumbnail version of their experience of the war and intimating some of their hopes for the future.

It’s a screenwriter’s moment, a too-polished précis. But Spielberg turns the heat up pretty quickly as the camera drifts toward the face of the man they’re so enthralled to meet: It’s Daniel Day-Lewis, looking as if he’d just stepped off the front of a five-dollar bill, and the face he’s wearing is that of a listener – and that’s the first, though hardly the last, significant human touch in "Lincoln." Everyone knows Lincoln was a great orator (and we see that here, too). But who ever thinks of him – or would know how to portray him – as a great listener?

Day-Lewis is a marvelous actor when he doesn't succumb -- as he did in "There Will Be Blood" -- to hyper-actorly mannerisms, and here he plays a man of infinite tenderness and almost unplumbable melancholy. One of the movie’s running gags – it’s almost as pronounced as a "Saturday Night Live" routine – is Lincoln’s habit of spinning out corny yarns that always come with a potent metaphor attached. Day-Lewis plays those moments for laughs, knowing, it seems, that great men are usually the last ones to be in on their own joke. Yet his finest scenes may be the ones he plays with Sally Field, as Mary Todd Lincoln: Fields is one of those rare actresses who has allowed herself to grow into the face she was meant to have (though here she looks much younger than her actual 67 years), and she and Day-Lewis play out the kind of behind-closed-doors intimacy that may very well come along with all the stress and worry of inhabiting the White House.

But most significantly – as the title of Goodwin’s book spells out -- Lincoln was, politically speaking, intensely shrewd. That’s where the chief drama of "Lincoln" kicks in, although oddly enough, many of the picture’s most striking moments don’t even require the presence of its title character. Day-Lewis gives a fine lead performance, but it’s really the ensemble that makes the movie, particularly in the nuanced, contentious scenes in which the House of Representatives duke it out over the slavery issue. This was a time, remember, when the term “Radical Republicans” didn’t mean wily, ruthless Tea Partiers: It was these radicals who pushed for an end to slavery. In their eyes, Lincoln, who was sensible about the political as well as moral reasons for ending slavery, was too much of a moderate.

Spielberg and Kushner work hard to keep the complicated political threadlines clear. They even manage to work in some laughs, courtesy of three rapscallion lobbyists – played by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and, most wonderful of all, a pudgy, mustachioed James Spader – who are dispatched by Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward (a buttoned-up, watchful David Strathairn) to change the minds of the balky Democrats. There are lots of villains here (including Jackie Earle Haley’s lizardy Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens), but even more heroes (among them Jared Harris’ suitably sozzled-looking Ulysses S. Grant).

"Lincoln," as shot by Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski, has a burnished, gaslit look: It’s a handsome figure of a film. But its truest triumph may lie in the casting of Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican – and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee – who led the charge against slavery. Jones’ Stevens is a thundercloud with a sturdy moral sense and very bad hair; he even makes a pointed reference to his clumsy wig, asserting that he looks worse without it. That sets the stage for the picture’s most deeply moving moment (which also features S. Epatha Merkeson, in a small but potent role),  a scene that cuts a window into the way some powerful, cranky men allow themselves vulnerability only behind closed doors. Jones’s performance is a wonder. Even those heavy under-eye pouches, the most recognizable TLJ trademark, have a purpose here: They carry whatever his eyes alone aren’t able to say. Abraham Lincoln may be Lincoln’s reason for being. But Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens is its reason to care.

Grade: B+