A rich snapshot of a defining moment in American history
The new Abe Lincoln picture from Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner is an historical epic of a quality that is exceptionally rare in American movies.
While the title character is central in every way, the film is no biopic, nor is it a war film—even though the Civil War is part of its setting right from the start. Kushner’s brilliant script focuses on Lincoln and his contemporaries and on the complex political maneuvering involved in getting slavery abolished, via the Thirteenth Amendment, in the first four months of the war’s final year, 1865.
That much historical specificity may sound a little daunting—or by some lights, a little too dry—but the Spielberg/Kushner Lincoln is never dull. There’s a fresh, canny mixture of docudrama and dramatic entertainment throughout, and a wonderfully trenchant and diverse cast provides vivid foreground and background alike in this unusual and complex version of Spielbergian spectacle.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ reedy and avuncular performance in the title role is a genuinely magnificent spectacle in its own right. Sally Field (as the emotionally divided Mary Todd Lincoln), David Strathairn (as William Seward, Lincoln’s shrewdly droll right-hand man and secretary of state), and Tommy Lee Jones (as the firebrand abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens) make especially strong impressions.
Other standouts include Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, Hal Holbrook as the curmudgeonly Francis Preston Blair, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s adult son, Robert, and Gulliver McGrath as Lincoln’s beloved younger son, Tad. And a trio of rowdy lobbyists (played with ribald flair by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes) bring a funky picaresque element to the tale of Lincoln’s grassroots politicking.
The film’s one notable battle scene comes right at the start; a muddy, blood-soaked, near-medieval scrum with Blue and Gray nearly indistinguishable and wallowing in savage hand-to-hand combat. That is followed with Lincoln’s first scene—an auspicious sideline conversation about the future with two very upright Union soldiers who are black and then with two scruffy-looking combatants who are white and in awe of the president.
Moral and political struggle form the film’s central dramas, and Lincoln’s genius as a speaker and thinker—the storyteller, the homespun lawyer and polemicist, the moral visionary, the shrewd, grave politician—is the central ingredient in its most dynamic action.
Spielberg the visionary auteur steps aside to put himself at the service of Kushner’s inspired pragmatism for most of this. Spielbergian awe is present in several of his justifiably hallowed images of Lincoln (including the quietly biblical intimations of the final scene), but the subtle iterations of a more Kushnerian motif—Lincoln’s friendly, respectful intimacy with an array of boys and young men—is more germane to the film’s richest artistry.