Oscar-bait season is upon us once again, to the consternation of folks like me who would like to have a choice of “serious films” scattered evenly throughout the year instead of all packed together at the end. What with all the extra duties involved in preparing for the winter holidays, it’s a time of year when going to the movies tends to become a low-priority use of one’s hours. If such triage becomes necessary for you, I recommend that you keep Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln very near the top of your must-see list for the end of 2012. It’s a sumptuous epic thoroughly deserving of the big screen. And with its core message being that politics is the art of the possible, the timing of its release – when a terminally fractious Congress is tasked with somehow achieving a compromise that will avert the “fiscal cliff” – could not be more perfect.
Although not all of this year’s competition has yet been seen, Lincoln has Best Picture written all over it. With a screenplay by Tony Kushner, based substantially on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, it’s the sort of earnest, grand-scale, no-expense-spared historical drama that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences traditionally loves to honor: moviemaking that’s good for you, reflecting a fleeting sheen of artistic integrity onto an industry that mostly runs on visual junk food. And if you weren’t already convinced by his prodigiously protean earlier output that Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the most brilliant actors in the business, his turn as the Great Emancipator will make you (and presumably the Academy) a believer.
Hollywood scuttlebutt has it that Day-Lewis spent more than a year in total Lincoln immersion getting ready to play this part, and it shows. Or perhaps it would be more precise to say that it doesn’t show, in the sense that he makes us forget almost immediately that we’re watching an actor at work, and not the great man himself.
But what’s especially engaging about this portrayal – for which the director, screenwriter and actor all deserve our gratitude – is that Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln is not the saintly, ossified Great Man that we remember from our grade-school history books. He’s a down-to-earth, rough-edged, self-taught country lawyer who pronounces doesn’t as “dudn’t” and woos his recalcitrant cabinet and Congress with tongue-in-cheek yarns and homespun parables. He’s a dutiful husband exasperated by a wife long mired in grief over the death from typhoid of their middle son, and a tender father indulgent of his youngest son (Gulliver McGrath), partly out of guilt for not having grieved so openly as Mary Todd Lincoln, who is played with superb feistiness by Sally Field.
Most of all, this Lincoln is a consummate politician, a canny operator who’s ready to put slightly shady tactics to work for a cause that he knows in his heart is absolutely righteous. The focus of the film’s narrative is January 1865, when the end of the Civil War – and hence the political will to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery – was drawing near. The leaders of the Confederacy were beginning to show signs of being willing to sue for peace, and Lincoln knew that if he didn’t act fast, the opportunity to get the Amendment through Congress would evaporate. Moreover, the recent election provided him a brief opportunity to coax some lame-duck Democrats to switch their votes in favor of the Amendment by offering them government jobs. Lincoln apparently drew the line at outright bribery, but considered patronage a necessary evil in the service of a greater good.
Much of the humor in Lincoln – of which there is more than one might expect in such a detailed history lesson – is supplied by the cast of rude mechanicals recruited by Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) to get those lame ducks in a row. James Spader is particularly funny as the hard-drinking ringleader of the press gang, a Nashville lawyer named William Bilbo who owes Lincoln a big favor for getting him out of some legal trouble. His nearly-as-disreputable sidekicks are John Hawkes as colonel Robert Latham and Tim Blake Nelson as congressman Richard Schell. Michael Stuhlbarg and Walton Goggins stand out as Yeaman and Hawkins, two of the congressional fence-straddlers whom they cajole.
On the House floor, Lincoln’s ace in the hole is Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican and lifelong Abolitionist who must learn to curb his rhetoric about giving blacks the vote or else jeopardize passage of the Amendment by alienating the moderates in his own party. Compromise is a bitter pill to the acid-tongued Stevens, played with great curmudgeonly wit by Tommy Lee Jones. His exchanges of insults with Copperhead spokesman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) at times reach Shakespearean heights (or depths) of invective that make modern-day filibustering sessions sound tame by comparison. But when push comes to shove, Stevens proves that he’s Lincoln’s man through and through. “Gentlemen,” he admonishes his colleagues, “you seem to have forgotten that our chosen career is politics.”
The first-rate cast of Lincoln is just too huge to do justice to every fine performance in a review, but I should at least mention Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair, a power broker who acts as the go-between in the peace overtures, and Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy. The very busy Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a convincing job as the Lincolns’ eldest son Robert, who chafes at being shielded by his parents from military service. And Jared Harris, who made such a cunning and ruthless Moriarty last year in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, shows a much softer side as a surprisingly compassionate, war-weary General Grant. Keep your eyes open in the brief scene where the president pays a call on a roomful of amputees in a military hospital, or you’ll miss the cameo appearance by Kevin Kline.
Lincoln is beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski; the art direction is extraordinary in the level of its historical authenticity. And then there’s that gorgeous, opulent soundtrack, in which John Williams unabashedly channels Aaron Copland, with an occasional Civil War-era fiddle tune thrown in. Lovers of cinematic spectacle will wallow in it all, and get a painless political education while they’re at it. We can only hope that the members of today’s do-nothing Congress will find the time to take in a movie while they deliberate – and perhaps take a lesson from the past that compromise is not a dirty word.