'Lincoln': Worth your vote
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Lincoln" enters theaters with the weight of almost inconceivable expectation hanging on its presidential coattails. It's the most remarkable movie Steven Spielberg has made in quite a spell, and one of the things that makes it remarkable is how it fulfills those expectations by simultaneously ignoring and transcending them.
The movie, scripted by Tony Kushner (the movie acknowledges Doris Kearns Goodwin's historical account "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" as a primary source) and starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, begins with two scenes that set the movie's agenda. One is a slightly cornball scene in which a benign folksy president chats with two pairs of Union soldiers, one of them African-American, the other Caucasian. These soldiers relate their experiences, challenge current policies, and end by reciting to Lincoln the words of his own Gettysburg Address. The scene plays like a bit of poetic license, like the cricket finale of Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor," structurally inverted. The other scene shows a bloody battle in a field of mud, in the rain, as the blue and gray forces bayonet and shoot and slam each other to a bloody, soaked death. And so, we are shown the Civil War and filled in on the principles Lincoln claimed to wage it in the defense of. This sets the stage for the subsequent engrossing drama of the sometimes dirty business of practicing politics in pursuit of those principles.
Lincoln lays it out to his secretary of state, William Seward (David Strathairn), as he begins his second term: He wants the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, passed in the House of Representatives, and he wants it passed right away. It's an ambitious idea. As Seward sees it, it's an idea impossible to see to fruition, given the current makeup of the House. It's his prudent counsel that Lincoln should wait for some new House members to take their seats. And the influential party organizer and journalist Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) is eager for Lincoln to entertain a Confederate peace offer from a delegation including Jefferson Davis' vice president. Lincoln's zeal stems from his determination to finish what he wanted with the Emancipation Proclamation. To that end, he has Seward draft a trio of lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) to acquire Democratic votes, with promises of patronage jobs if necessary.
Never mind the better angels of our nature. No other fictional movie about Lincoln has ever focused on how he conducted himself as a politician, and while this movie doesn't paint him as a dirty one, it does show his cageyness in full and delightful flower. Lincoln the folksy storyteller, it seemed, not infrequently put on that persona as a stalling tactic, or a way to move the exchange he was negotiating to a different ground, one more suitable to his argument. Luckily, he also seemed to have a store of really good stories, which made the tactic seem less obvious.
It's interesting in scenes in which he interacts with those who have worked with him longest, how exasperating he can be to them. We're getting to an essential truth about this movie here, by the way: that it is mostly made up of scenes of men sitting or standing in rooms while arguing. It is very much a study in process, of how things get done, or not done. In this respect its closest cinematic relative is Otto Preminger's 1962 "Advise & Consent," an epic dissection of a presidential appointment. Because "Lincoln" aspires to depict a noble moment in the real-life history of the United States, it is less gimlet-eyed than the (not entirely) cynical earlier movie. But it studiously avoids treacly sentiment throughout. While unabashed in its admiration for Lincoln, the movie does not shirk from portraying a great man in full as he wrestles with problems in his domestic life (his oldest son, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, wants to enlist in the Union Army, and his fiercely intelligent and volatile wife, Mary, played by Sally Field, has some understandable objections to this idea) while relentlessly pushing for his policy goal.
Spielberg stages his scenes with brio, and his camera, manned as usual by Janusz Kaminski, prowls over each strategy playlet with a curiosity that arouses the viewer's own. The tensions between the various characters is enhanced by the way the movie expands and contracts time, pocketing flashbacks and flash-forwards that show the results (sometimes failed) of Lincoln and his crew's machinations as the president lays them out.
The stellar cast never misses a trick, and while of course Day-Lewis's portrayal is seamless, striking and new, he does not here dominate the rest of the cast in the same way that he did in, say, "Gangs of New York." And Tommy Lee Jones, as visionary Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, is every bit as vivid and, in his own way, just as unforgettable a character. While this is a story that does not have a female component to equal its dramatis personae of alpha politicos, Field is entirely remarkable, and other women in smaller roles, particularly Elizabeth Marvel and S. Epatha Merkerson, make a strong impression. "Lincoln" is an engrossing, genuinely entertaining film that is also an inspiring piece of Americana in the finest sense of the term.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.