Times are contentious in the Union. The Civil War rages on and the death toll is in the hundreds of thousands. Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has two choices placed before him by his trusted Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn at his wit's end). One, an amendment that would allow for slaves to be freed and the other, a peace agreement with the South. His recent re-election has bundled some goodwill for his agenda and he means to package it for the amendment.
The House is publicly divided between the Democrats, conservative and radical Republicans, with abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (an Oscar-bound Tommy Lee Jones) corralling his caucus and Seward's task force of Bilbo (James Spader), Latham (John Hawkes) and Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) trading positions for votes.
Despite the heavy title and the prestige that the marketing and advertising have treated Lincoln with, this is not a biopic that showers its protagonist with awe. This is no Honest Abe by any means, he is a wily politician who knows people and what needs to be done to get legislation passed. It is easy to forget over the course of time that these icons were still men. That truth is often lost to time.
A man like President Lincoln casts a long shadow over history. He presided over an unparalleled time of controversy and he united a nation. What makes Lincoln successful is that Day-Lewis, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner play with the myths in the shadows.
Here, Lincoln's voice is not rich, it is of a plain speaker. He was not a perfect father, nor a perfect husband. He did not possess a crystal ball, but he held his beliefs with fierce conviction. Some of the Lewis' best scenes come when he is pressed on why he feels slavery has to be abolished at the cost of creating peace between the Confederates and the Union.
One of the directors that Steven Spielberg has been most compared with is John Ford. Now, it is no coincidence that both are masters at utilizing light and landscape. Often during the film Lincoln creates a large shadow walking into the room, but very quickly it shrinks down. The human interactions between him and Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) or Abe and Marie Todd (Sally Field) bring Lincoln down to an earthly scale. Day-Lewis and Sally Field's scenes offer a revelatory take on the dynamic between President and First Lady.
Considering the majority of Lincoln takes place in legislative halls and the halls of the White House, Kushner does an excellent job with the dialogue. The shop-talk portions including Spader, Jones and Strathairn feel like being let in the Capital in the 1860s. Limiting the scope of Lincoln's life was the best possible decision that Spielberg and Kushner could have made.
Whatever hold-ups some may have with Spielberg handling Lincoln are largely unfounded. Frequent collaborator, John Williams, refrains from creating swells of music that take viewers out of the drama of the moment. The tone is not Pollyanna-esque as one would expect, Lewis plays Lincoln as the world-weary man tired of war on his watch and tired of what humans are capable of doing to one another.
What Spielberg's film does is take Lincoln out of his marble casing and let's him stretch his legs amongst the people.
***1/2 out of ****