But the most intriguing aspect of “Lincoln” is its breadth — or, notably, its lack thereof. With a lifetime of material that could have been plumbed on Abraham Lincoln — his humble birth in a one-room log cabin, his hardscrabble rise up the political ladder — the obvious problem becomes one of finding out how best to sum up a man who single- handedly kept the nation from crumbling. This is solved by a screenplay that focuses on a single month at the beginning of Lincoln’s second term, quite possibly the toughest month in the history of the American presidency. Writer Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) is able to strip away the mythology and instead train in on Lincoln’s second greatest legacy (after winning the Civil War, that is): the passage of the 13th Amendment.
It’s heady stuff, no doubt about that. Old white guys with funny facial hair talking and arguing (and talking some more) may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but with Spielberg’s deft camera work and Day-Lewis’ spot-on performance, the material becomes absolutely riveting. The greatest victory is Day-Lewis’ acting, which will certainly become the definitive version of Honest Abe. The beard, the top hat and the folksy, storytelling charm survive in this depiction; the booming voice common in most portrayals does not. Day-Lewis accurately (according to historians, at least) speaks with Lincoln’s nasally, relatively high-pitched voice that quickly becomes endearing, especially to our Midwestern ears. He embodies Lincoln so well you can practically feel his joints creaking every time he rises from his chair. But when he slams his hand down in frustration and lets his anger show, boy howdy, do you see the lion under the surface.
Spielberg utilizes mostly natural light throughout the film, plunging entire scenes into shadows or throwing them under direct harsh sunlight. Sometimes he does both simultaneously, as in the scene that introduces Lincoln’s foil, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), which takes place in a sunbeam-stabbed darkened room. Jones — who stays in his comfort zone, playing Stevens as an Old Crank with a Heart of Gold — leads a phalanx of strong supporting characters, including big-name stars (Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln; David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward; James Spader as a slimy “Democratic operative”) and talented under-the-radar character actors (“Mad Men”’s Jared Harris as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant; “Breaking Bad”’s David Costabile as Congressman James Ashley). It’s hard to tell if it’s the richness of the script, the thrill of working for an actor’s director like Spielberg or the buzz that comes from working on a set with a man who looks, acts and talks exactly like Abraham freaking Lincoln that brings out the best in these performers, but something sure does.
Much as he did with the brutal D-Day sequence in “Saving Private Ryan,” Spielberg opens the film in the middle of a vicious, rain-soaked Civil War battlefield, with factions on both sides stabbing, punching and grinding each other’s faces into the mud. It’s mercifully short, and it segues into a recitation of the Gettysburg Address by a couple of black recruits. It’s a powerful way to start the movie, and it sets the tone of how high the stakes are to get that amendment through.
Kushner wisely avoids playing Lincoln as a saint, showing us that, yes, he did argue with his wife — and perhaps the president did play lawyers’ games with the language in order to make things happen. But there’s a love for Lincoln that shines through in almost every scene, especially in the repeated use of Lincoln’s parable-like jokes and yarns that are seemingly apropos of nothing.
“Oh no, I feel a story coming on,” moans Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) as he hurries from the room as Abe warms up a doozy; the rest of us settle in for what’s sure to be a treat.