Movie News & Reviews

'Lincoln': lovely but meandering portrait of Honest Abe

Daniel Day Lewis stars as President Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln.
Daniel Day Lewis stars as President Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln. SMPSP

The leading man is slightly too short, barely suggesting the height that Abraham Lincoln's contemporaries said made him "tower o'er other men." And his voice, researched and accurate as it might be, is not the Lincoln that has been inside our heads for generations.

The actress they cast to play his wife is two decades older than the woman she is portraying. Ulysses S. Grant is a sharp-dressed redhead and, like Lincoln himself, is played by a Brit.

We don't get the whole of Lincoln's life and career: the hardscrabble childhood, the hard-won election, or even much of the Civil War that election led to.

But Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is an elegiac turn from a filmmaker we thought was out of new tricks, a vivid, melancholy and meditative look at one of America's most revered presidents. Daniel Day-Lewis gives us a very human flesh-and-blood Lincoln, weighed down by events but never at a loss for a funny story, rightfully lionized by history but flawed and willing to take political shortcuts to secure his place in history.

Lincoln, using Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals and other historical texts as its guide, zeroes in on the president and his quarrelsome cabinet, and their race to amend the Constitution to ban slavery before the Civil War ends. They're racing because of the potential for renewed conservative Southern interference from a new Congress, including newly reunited Confederate states. In brief but pointed sketches, Spielberg paints in the "rivals" Lincoln packed into his cabinet: the secretary of state, William Seward (David Strathairn), who longed to be president himself but came to worship Lincoln; and the impatient, oft-embattled secretary of war, Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill, ill-tempered and terrific). The filmmaker captures the political wheeling, dealing, bargaining and bullying that it took to make a lame-duck Congress turn permanent the sentiments of Lincoln's earlier Emancipation Proclamation.

"We're whalin', Mr. Ashby," Lincoln tells one weak-kneed congressman. "We've been chasin' this whale a long time."

I love the way Lincoln enters the picture: weary, seated, meeting soldiers who tell of their exploits — and atrocities — men so excited at the sight of him that they jabber, all at once, interrupting the president.

That's a recurring motif here, people talking over Lincoln, impatient with his jokes, homilies and allegorical stories. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), can point out that "No one's as loved as much as you," but that doesn't mean his political contemporaries — friends and foes — feared insulting him, brushing him off or shouting him down.

Day-Lewis gets across the gentle humanity of the man, a doting dad, tolerant husband (Field ably makes Mary's famous mood swings understandable) and a kind soul who was simply good, and never more good than when he kept things simple.

Tommy Lee Jones lends flint and fire to "radical" Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, whose chief criticism of Lincoln was the president's equivocating and delaying the ending of slavery. John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and a hilarious James Spader are back-door wheeler-dealers angling to bribe enough votes to secure passage of the 13th Amendment. Hal Holbrook brings great gravitas to political kingmaker Francis Blair, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is well-cast as Lincoln's older son, Robert.

Jackie Earle Haley stands out as Alexander Stephens, the Confederate vice president angling for a peace treaty that will preserve slavery. More problematic is Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows) as Grant. His hair, air and accent don't work, and turning the rumpled, hard-drinking general into someone this spit-and-polished doesn't help.

Tony Kushner's script pauses, time and again, for Lincoln to tell a joke or a little story, always to get across some larger point. Day-Lewis is nobody's idea of a comedian, so he lacks Lincoln's Mark Twain yarn-spinner timing.

For all its grace notes and lightly lyrical touches, the movie, like the Great Man himself, ambles, meanders and wanders off on storytelling tangents. It's a flaccid 21/2 hours long, which does make for a somewhat more complete portrait of the man but which robs the movie of any sense of forward progress and urgency.

This renders Lincoln closer to Amistad than Schindler's List in the Spielberg canon: historically meticulous, well-intentioned, but missing emotion and a sense of momentum.

It's still a lovely film, and thanks to the research and good-humored, stoop-shouldered interpretation of Honest Abe, the Lincoln that American schoolchildren picture in their heads from now on could have a weedy drawl provided by an Oscar-winning Englishman, one of the finest actors who ever lived.

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