By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
We knew Lincoln was a great man, a wit, an altruist, a template for humanitarianism and a darn good rassler in his youth. But often lost is what a brilliant politician he was, maybe because of the negative connotation generally ascribed that occupation. In director Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” Daniel Day-Lewis magnificently rectifies that oversight.
Should you choose to venture with the 16th President of the United States during the last months of the Civil War, be prepared for two and one half hours of the most intelligent, thoughtful and provocative entertainment to come down the cinema pike in recent time. While seeing it won’t earn you an M.A. in history, one should be granted a credit or two.
This is responsible stuff. And though loaded with life’s humor, usually via the title character’s pungent anecdotes, truisms and observations, there is little Hollywoodization here to make the smart and weighty go down easy. OK, it isn’t for everyone. Yet it is a testament to Mr. Spielberg’s brilliance that he makes such heady material so accessible.
There’s a whole bunch going on at once, both in the narrative so splendidly realized and in the grand but deceptively simple process that presents it. The filmmaker sings a paean to the tradition of historical movies, acknowledging the pageantry of the ages, and yet happily skips all the baroque surplus thanks to an instinctive economy of storytelling.
An award-worthy script by Tony Kushner, adapted in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, is obviously interpreted with due reverence by a stellar cast. It can get a little complicated, especially if you’ve been out of school for a while. However, in time the memory is jogged and you figure out who’s who, by word, deed and even body language.
The scenario: It’s early 1865 and, while it’s fairly certain the North will win the war, the nature and structure of the peace that will follow pose numerous questions and enigmas. Although the union will be preserved, Mr. Lincoln sees his work far from done. Granted, the Emancipation Proclamation fulfilled a military goal, but slavery is still not abolished.
Hence, honest Abe has now turned most of his attention and energies to the proposed 13th Amendment. Passed by a friendly Senate, its future in the House of Representatives is precarious. What thus follows is a world class primer on advice, consent, everything Machiavelli taught, a little Medici and maybe a few moves and stratagems from Caesar.
Lincoln, driven by moral certainty, doesn’t actually say the end justifies the means. But when he concedes to his associates that one ploy in particular is a lawyerly tactic he first ventured back on the circuit in Illinois, we take it as a sly wink cordially inviting us into his confidence. We are aboard to see justice done, and feeling all ennobled for it.
Doing the great man’s bidding and thereby framing for us the length and breadth of Mr. Lincoln’s diplomatic brilliance is Secretary of State William Seward, convincingly realized by David Strathairn. Sullying his hands where the President cannot, we’re literally brought to the back room where two scalawag go-betweens add comic relief.
The negotiations and brinksmanship recall the warning of the pundit who said folks should avoid seeing two things made: laws and sausage. Indeed, it’s tough going for the emancipator. And as the work proceeds, one can’t help make analogies to current, well-meaning politicians, and appreciate the loneliness that can often attend a moral mission
Spielberg, through Daniel Day-Lewis’s all-encompassing command of both the myth and the man, subtly pedestals the protagonist, evidencing the admiration earned even from his most ardent political foes. We check ourselves, rationally sure that he was but human, yet remain in awe of this down home soul whose abilities seem otherworldly.
Creating the time and temper of the intriguing milieu is a solid supporting cast led by Sally Field as the troubled and often maligned Mary Todd Lincoln. But the pick here for a secondary Oscar is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, abolitionist, congressman and the cleverly embodied proof that politics makes for strange bedfellows.
However, a nomination for the major male statuette is sure to be garnered by Daniel Day-Lewis. In the vernacular of the texting generation, his portrayal is awesome…totally. The performance, a veritable lesson in method acting worthy of Brando, uncannily captures not only what is known of Lincoln, but enchantingly assumes his spirit as well.
Too bad for those who will avoid this epochal gem because they don’t care for history, preferring instead to repeat its mistakes. This is a sturdy monograph certain to win the muse Clio’s approval. Vigorously reconstructing the watershed era in question, “Lincoln” also shows us that divisiveness can be overcome when good people put their minds to it.
“Lincoln,” rated PG-13, is a Touchstone Pictures release directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. Running time: 150 minutes