Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" does something that, at this very particular moment in time, seems almost impossible to comprehend. It makes politics exciting again.
Maybe you don't want to hear this. Whether you're elated or dejected by this week's election results, you're doubtless sick of all things relating to governance. Besides, trailers for "Lincoln" and the general hullabaloo leading up to its appearance in theaters have led most of us to expect a standard Spielbergian portrait of the 16th president as an exalted saint. But "Lincoln" is smarter and tougher than that. The crucial ingredient proves to be not the director and not even star Daniel Day-Lewis — both of them working at the top of their talents — but screenwriter Tony Kushner. The "Angels in America" playwright (he worked with Spielberg on "Munich") has penned an epic ensemble about the intersection of democratic process and higher moral thinking, and it's a rip-roaring entertainment, brain food that's tasty and good for you. Sweet Lord, how refreshing it is to hear dialogue that crackles with wit and personality — with actual ideas.
Rather than an overarching biography, Spielberg and Kushner zero in on the weeks immediately following the president's reelection in late 1864, when Lincoln opts to spend his new political capital by pushing through the 13th Amendment and abolishing slavery in the face of opposition from all sides. Based loosely on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 bestseller, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," the film's a galloping drama of horse-trading, strategic thinking, and deal making, all yoked to notions of what should be done rather than what could be done. It's the most enjoyable two and a half hours of historical C-Span ever made, shot on a wide canvas (and on film) with impeccable eye to detail by Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.
Aside from the president, not one character in "Lincoln" thinks the Amendment stands a chance of passing in the Senate and the House. Hardly anyone thinks it's even a good idea. We're reminded that the Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime measure and that, with the Civil War grinding toward a conclusion, only a change to the Constitution would prevent slavery from resuming in the South. "Lincoln" takes pains to illustrate for a modern viewer the racist thinking that was part and parcel of the average white American's worldview in January 1865.
That certainly includes Lincoln himself, who at this point has consciously chosen to listen to the better angels of his nature. By giving enough scenes to African-American characters like White House seamstress Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) and Union Corporal Ira Clark (David Oyelowo), we comprehend the stakes as they see it. More critically, by giving over the stage to the radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens — a gloriously obstreperous Tommy Lee Jones — the movie lets us understand how rare and how dangerous it was for a white man to publicly state that blacks and whites were equals on every possible level.
Jones comes very close to stealing "Lincoln" with a performance of ethical purity and calm, hilarious invective, and if anyone else were playing the president, the actor might have the movie in his pocket. Day-Lewis moves eerily beyond impersonation to embodiment, though, and we watch with fascination as he reinvents Abraham Lincoln as a canny politician hiding behind a folksy, godlike exterior. It's a daringly low-key portrayal, one that moves to private rhythms rather than public posturing, and it seems directly descended from Henry Fonda's dreamily confident "Young Mr. Lincoln" in the 1939 film directed by Spielberg's beloved John Ford. This Lincoln walks like a tortoise and thinks like a hare, forever telling cracker-barrel anecdotes that reveal stinging moral rebukes. (Except for the scene in which he tells a dirty joke involving a picture of George Washington in a British toilet — then, like any showman, he just wants a laugh.)
The performance carries the weight of history at the same time it's rooted in the day-to-day exigencies of statesmanship. Day-Lewis lets us see how the war and the presidency have aged Lincoln while teaching him to think for the ages. Yet at no time do we lose sight of the man, indulgent toward his sons (Gulliver McGrath as young Tad and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, without much to do, as ardent Robert), exasperated and loving with his high-strung wife (Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln), and unyielding with the members of his Cabinet, all men of greater pragmatism and lesser spine.
One of the greatest pleasures of "Lincoln," in fact, is the many characters and performances that strut across its stage. The president's closest adviser, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), is a D.C. realist aghast at what he considers an act of political suicide. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) has a short fuse lit and re-lit by Lincoln's meddling. The president's Republican party is portrayed as a shaky coalition of radicals, centrists, and conservatives, while the Democrats have a similar mix of grandstanding obstructionists and quiet realists. (The film makes clear that the parties are, very generally speaking, nearly the opposite of what we understand them to be now, with Democrats urging a return to prewar policies and values and Republicans pressing the case for greater social inclusiveness.)
So we get Michael Stuhlbarg as Kentucky Democrat George Yeaman, gently agonizing over the right thing to do. We get Lee Pace as New York's Fernando Wood, the Democrats' silver-tongued fulminator (against whom Jones's Stevens gives as good as he gets). Happily, we get James Spader rejuvenating his career as the most juicily amoral of the three men employed by Lincoln to woo lame-duck Democrats with government jobs. (John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson are the other two; today we'd call them lobbyists, but Spielberg uses them as his own Manny, Moe, and Jack.) Kushner's script winks at such realpolitik chicanery — likewise at the secret peace talks with the Confederacy the president both offers and stalls — while understanding this is both the price and the danger of getting things done. Lincoln's imperial tendencies are chewed over in dialogue that sparks our own reasoning. "What reins him in?" someone wonders. "Well, the people, I suppose," comes the rejoinder.
Just so: "Lincoln" neatly balances naivete and cynicism, the highest ideals and the lowest suspicions, in a way that flatters an audience's ability to think for itself. At the same time it rolls along with the supreme craft we've come to associate with this director when he's pushed by intelligent collaborators. Only toward the end, after the Amendment passes — no spoilers there, although "Lincoln" turns the vote into a finely tuned example of movie suspense — does Spielberg's hagiographic bent take over and the machinery start elevating the president into the heavens.
Kushner's taste for speechifying has begun to wear on us by this point, too, and there are scenes that smack more of the stage than the screen. A bitter domestic spat between Lincoln and his wife humanizes the president almost too much; yes, they fought, but this is more Edward Albee's George and Martha than history's. (That said, Fields's performance is a beautiful thing, one that uses the actress's own neurotic edge — her need for us to really, really like her — to breathe life into a smart, volatile, sorrowful woman.)
"Lincoln" fights against the deification of the patient martyr who stares out at us from our five dollar bills, but in the final scenes Spielberg caves in. Can he be blamed? Would he even be Spielberg without the triumphalism of Great Man moviemaking or John Williams's Copland-esque score cueing us to easy tears? Thankfully, the director has Kushner to guard against his soggier impulses. (The assassination, for one thing, occurs off-screen.) More to the point, "Lincoln" is about the petty yet profoundly necessary task of forging consensus — of getting small-minded humans to look beyond their immediate concerns to their larger duty. It's about our flaws, civic and personal, then as now, and what a genuine leader has to do to advance us beyond them, as a people and as a country, if not as individuals.
It's also about the power of reason, and the power of words to give body and urgency to reason. So, yes, "Lincoln" has a lot of talk, moving and fatuous, florid and brutally concise. This may sound like an ordeal in our era of partisan bloviation, but Spielberg and Kushner rescue language as a holy weapon of persuasion and the only real antidote to killing one another on the battlefield. It's possible you may think "Lincoln" is too talky — too full of characters and ideas, too taxing to our Twitter-pated attention spans. Consider, then, that it may not be the movie that's unworthy of your time. You may not be worthy of it.
Ty Burr can be reached at tburr