Rated PG-13. 149 minutes. At area theaters.
Steven Spielberg's masterful drama "Lincoln," starring a mesmerizing Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president, opened in New York and Los Angeles last week. Upon seeing it in Manhattan, one of my kinder, gentler friends dashed off this e-mail:
"What a sham," she began. "And I didn't like Daniel Day-Lewis in the role. That wasn't Lincoln. Hollywood fog and lights and a mess, a lying mess, shame on Spielberg." Ouch.
The e-mail was a reminder that powerful art elicits powerful reactions — not all of them laudatory. And as we head into award season, "Lincoln" is going to get its share of love but also some cranky opposition, some of it even deserved.
Still, as much as I share her suspicion of Hollywood mythmaking, I beg to differ with my friend. Yes, "Lincoln," with its high production values, singular lead performance and stellar cast, is undeniably the work of a director who intends his "Lincoln" to be the Lincoln film. But with its focus on the lofty ideals and rough-and-tumble political machinations, it is also a sober and timely homage to our messy, violent, wondrous democracy.
"Lincoln" isn't a traditional biopic. The story focuses on the final four months in the president's life, in particular the time when he was pushing to get the House of Representatives to vote on and pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.
With the end of the Civil War in sight, Lincoln believes the only way to successfully reunite the nation is to finish off slavery. He'd assumed extraordinary wartime powers during the conflict and, in one scene, Lincoln admits ruefully that once the war is over, his January 1863 executive order known as the Emancipation Proclamation might not hold up legally.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (who worked with the director on "Munich") took their inspiration from Doris Kearns Goodwin's award-winning history "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." Though the battle for the 13th Amendment is touched on in only a handful of pages, the film's focus underscores Goodwin's arguments for Lincoln's tremendous skill at governing.
"Lincoln" offers proof of what magic can happen when an actor falls in love with his character. Because as great as Day-Lewis has been in his many parts, he has never seemed quite so smitten.
His embrace of Lincoln makes this whiskered commander in chief human, powerfully so. This lanky soul is playful father to young Tad (Gulliver McGrath) and protective father to 21-year-old Robert. Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Robert is aching to join a war against his parents' wishes. Day-Lewis is husband to mourning mate Mary Todd Lincoln. He is a grieving parent in his own right.
This Lincoln is a storyteller, a clever raconteur. For heaven's sake, he chuckles at his own jokes, using them like parables to underscore some more profound political issues.
When he settles into a yarn, plopping himself on a desktop or staring down with a faraway gaze, before he begins, he might be met with rolled eyes. Or plain confusion. Early in the film, Lincoln's former political competitor and now his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), replies to one of Lincoln's homespun riffs, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Lincoln" is packed with characters, and we mean that in both senses of the word. Sally Field allows us to rethink the high-strung burden Mary Todd Lincoln has been portrayed as. Yes, the loss of their son nearly undid her, but she's emotionally and politically astute. A chilly, faux cordial face-off with Rep. Stevens shows a woman unbowed by Washington hierarchies or gossip.
As good as Day-Lewis is, Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader do their darndest to steal the show. Spader is often hilarious as W.N. Bilbo, one of three lobbyists tasked with securing a few Democrats to support the measure. John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson play his colleagues.
Jones is the dour Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a so-called radical Republican from Pennsylvania and the only figure who seems to understand deep in his bones that blacks are equal to whites.
He is sour and sarcastic and utterly watchable.
By his own admission, Spielberg has been obsessed with the 16th prez since he was a boy. He clearly aims to honor his subject with a motion picture befitting his stature. That he attempts this while also revealing the human side of Lincoln is the film's grandest and most generous ambition.
Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567, email@example.com or twitter.com/bylisakennedy