Steven Spielberg’s biopic “Lincoln” takes an honest look at Honest Abe
Steven Spielberg is the master manipulator of the movies.
Capable of plucking our heartstrings like a harpist, he preys on our emotions with larger-than-life heroes, sweeping cinematography and soaring soundtracks. When he wants us to gasp, we gasp. When he wants us to weep, we turn on the water works.
So it comes as somewhat a surprise that Spielberg’s biopic “Lincoln” offers a portrait of our 16th president that’s often less than flattering.
His Abraham Lincoln, brought to roaring life by Daniel Day-Lewis in a virtuoso performance, is a man of intelligence and resolve. He’s also cunning, crafty and willing to use almost any means at his disposal — bribery, intimidation, misdirection — to accomplish his admittedly worthy goals
Rather than attempt to encompass Lincoln’s entire presidency, “Lincoln” wisely focuses the final four months of his life — and his campaign to pass of the 13th Amendment, which would revise the U.S. Constitution to outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude.
It’s a mission that finds him constantly butting heads with the likes of influential Republican Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbook), who wants Lincoln to broker a peace deal with the Confederates, and Radical Republican Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a resolute abolitionist who worries the president will abandon his promises of emancipation once the brutal, bloody Civil War has ended.
In the meantime, Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward (David Stathairn) must find a way to win over enough Democrats to ensure the amendment’s passage in Congress.
They secretly hire unsavory lobbyist William Bilbo (James Spader) and his cohorts (John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) to seek out lame-duck Democrats willing to change their votes in exchange for plush public posts.
Some bite. Others do not. And all this skulduggery does not go unnoticed by pro-slavery Congressman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and his allies.
Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” “Lincoln” offers a refreshingly honest look at a public figure who has been idolized, mythologized and lionized since — spoiler alert — his assassination in 1865.
Here is a self-schooled lawyer and politician who uses his wit like a weapon. He’s deeply moral but unquestionably practical, exceptionally well-read yet always willing to trade on his reputation as backwoods bumpkin and folksy storyteller.
In one delightful scene, the president shares a slightly off-color tale about a toilet — prompting Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) to protest, “You’re going to tell one of your stories! I can’t stand to hear another one of your stories!”
Spielberg doesn’t shy away from Lincoln’s home life either, delving into his complicated relationships with his tart wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and distant eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln(Joseph Gordon-Levitt). We see Lincoln grieve over the early death of his son Willie, and dote on his youngest surviving son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath).
Adding yet another Oscar-worthy performance to a career that has included Christy Brown in “My Left Foot” and Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood” is Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the most powerful actors of his general. He is every inch the president, from his lanky, awkward frame to his reedy yet piercing tenor.
As Mrs. Lincoln, Sally Field encourages a sympathetic view of one of the most maligned first ladies in American history. Her turn as a sentimental matron might be a bit broad but it goes a long way toward rewriting the history books.
The other powerhouse performance in “Lincoln” belongs to Tommy Lee Jones as the irascible firebrand Thaddeus Stevens. After a string of roles in which he’s been required to play his emotional cards close to the vest, it’s endlessly enjoyable to watch Jones thunder and roar and rage — his deeply creased face awash with sardonic humor and profound irritation.
The rest of the cast is a “who’s who” of terrific character actors, from Jackie Earle Haley to Michael Stuhlbarg. Holbrook is likable as Blair, and Jared Harris has a nice, brief turn as General Ulysses Grant, to whom he bears a spooky resemblance.
Like all Spielberg dramas, “Lincoln” has its share of big emotional scenes punctuated by inspiring speeches and stirring musical flourishes. But they’re matched by quieter moments, resulting in a more thoughtful, intimate film where most of the heavy lifting is done by dialogue.
Despite occasional schmaltz, “Lincoln” makes for a splendid history lesson.
“Lincoln” image courtesy of MovieWeb.com.