Of all our presidents, Abraham Lincoln dominates motion pictures; simply as a character in film, in fact, he ranks in number of appearances up there with such luminaries as Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. (Honest Abe actually encountered some of Dracula's relatives in the ridiculous "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" of a few months back, and of course dealt with them handily). In his new movie, "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg therefore confronts one of the most revered figures in our past, one of the most familiar chapters in American history, and the formidable challenge of a long cinematic tradition.
The director concentrates his focus on a few months in 1865, as both sides in the Civil War recognized its inevitable outcome, though continuing the butchery, and sought some way to make peace. Aside from the war itself, Lincoln's major struggle involved his efforts to persuade the Congress to pass the 13th Amendment, declaring the equality of black Americans with their white counterparts. The Senate had already passed the bill, but the Congress, dominated by a coalition of conservative Republicans, for a number of reasons, most of them racist, resisted mightily (sound familiar?).
As a result of its particular and rather specialized subject, much of the movie reflects a kind of inside baseball, a close study of the intricacies of governmental behaviors in the day. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his cabinet meet frequently, arguing about his commitment to the amendment, the methods to obtain passage, and the tricky business of secret discussions with representatives of the Confederacy suing for peace. Lincoln also enlists a slick team of wheeler-dealers led by W. N. Bilbo (James Spader) to wheedle, threaten, bribe, and corrupt those Congressmen opposed to the amendment.
Since Spielberg bases the work partially on Doris Kearns Goodwin's history, "Team of Rivals," much of the action stumbles through a clutter of scholarly detail. Since the playwright Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay, far too much of it relies on static, talky, enclosed scenes, full of long, dull, often repetitive conversations. Lincoln must convince his cabinet, especially the skeptical William Seward (David Strathairn), of the moral and political importance of the amendment, which precipitates innumerable arguments among the group, some of them surprisingly disrespectful.
The liveliest parts of the film, remarkably, show the Congress in session, a rowdy group of tobacco chewers and vulgar shouters who happily insult their opponents with some wonderfully eloquent phrases while passionately arguing their views. The most powerful orator among them, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a radical Republican and dedicated Abolitionist, leads the fight for passage, throwing rhetorical hand grenades at his opponents with sheer delight in the joy of battle.
Avoiding the scenery chewing of "Gangs of New York" and the enigmatic narcissism of "There Will Be Blood," Daniel Day-Lewis resolutely (and refreshingly) underplays the title role. As anyone expects, his Lincoln is thoughtful, introspective, and tormented, dealing with his unstable wife (Sally Field), a son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) he wants to keep out of the war, and the manifold problems of overseeing a terrible conflict and controlling a recalcitrant Congress. Frequently quoting odd, irrelevant lines from Shakespeare, telling long folksy stories that often puzzle his listeners, he also however seems sly and even Machiavellian, a clever operator on the rough-and-tumble political stage of 1865.
Just about everyone in the large supporting cast performs remarkably well, most of them underplaying like the star, but Tommy Lee Jones simply owns all of his scenes, gleefully abusing his enemies in Ciceronian speeches in the House, manipulating the weaklings he must win over, ardently and eloquently arguing his just cause; at times he appears far more engaging than Honest Abe. James Spader, of all people, provides another pleasant surprise, a slick worker doing Lincoln's dirty work as if he enjoyed the great game of corrupt politics.
Despite a story whose triumph and tragedy is known by every schoolchild, the movie maintains its appeal throughout by mixing humor into some of the most serious moments, showing the sometimes ignoble means that Lincoln employed to accomplish his aims. For all his experience and skill, Spielberg misfires at the end, somehow failing to recognize his own thrilling climactic moments and concluding on a disappointing downbeat, as if he missed the point of his own movie, a point we can all understand.