“Lincoln” is more BBC drama than American blockbuster. It is two-and-a-half hours long and stars a cast of aging character actors. It relies not on action sequences and beautiful faces but on complex conversations about law and policy to move the plot. And it humanizes, however respectfully, an American demigod.
Daniel Day-Lewis is the movie’s biggest name, and he does not disappoint. His Lincoln is both powerful and vulnerable, affable and exhausted to the point of letting his fury flash out — someone to be both loved and feared. The movie begins in the fourth year of the Civil War, with the Confederate states ready to surrender and Lincoln desperately trying to push the Anti-Slavery Amendment through Congress.
Lincoln is in a tenuous position: the Emancipation Proclamation, he tells his cabinet, was necessary but possibly illegal, and he has a burning need to make his hatred for slavery constitutional. Lacking the necessary majority, he must bribe and bully his Democratic opponents in Congress for votes, even if it means prolonging the war so that he can continue to use it as a political weapon in Washington.
The radical Republican Thaddeus Stephens, played by an excellent Tommy Lee Jones, believes that Lincoln’s ends justify any means, and sums up the bill as “passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” I suspect Spielberg comes to the same conclusion, but I’m not sure he requires his audience to agree. When Lincoln shouts, “I am the president of the United States, clothed in immense power, and you will get me those votes!”, accusations earlier in the movie of “tyranny” come to mind. Given that Day-Lewis’ Lincoln essentially lies to Congress to get those votes, I had to agree with the Confederate envoy who, when the president began lecturing him on democracy, begs Lincoln to “spare us your pieties.”
There is no question, however, that Day-Lewis will be in the running for an Oscar with his brilliant performance. Sally Field and David Straithairn are great foils as the president’s anxious wife and Secretary of State, and Joseph Gordon Levitt has a solid — but surprisingly secondary and unmacho — role as young Robert Lincoln. The script is clever and intriguing; the camera work is superb.
The film’s length allows for deep character development, but I do wish Spielberg ended it a few minutes earlier. He seems unsure of how to handle Lincoln’s assassination, and the result is clunky and slips into the sentimentality he had avoided up to then. Lincoln standing alone in his room, listening, would have been such a better closing image than Lincoln, haloed in a giant candle flame, with the Gettysburg Address playing in the background. Sure, Lincoln belongs to history now, but I could have done without one of his friends solemnly stating it at the president’s death bed.
The ending, however, does not ruin the movie. It is a fascinating, intelligent, masterfully acted, and surprisingly balanced film, and certainly deserves to score big come Oscar season.