In case you think Congressional gridlock is some sort of 21st century invention, director Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln should convince you otherwise. The recent battles over health care and debt ceilings are not all that different than the sort of storms President Abraham Lincoln faced in 1865 when he was trying to drum up support for the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which formally abolished slavery.
Lincoln was an ambitious Republican whose ideas rubbed many of his rivals the wrong way. Democrats tried to brand him a dictator, when they weren’t warning that his agenda would destroy the country. Meanwhile, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln bristled at the personal attacks she and her family had had to weather, such as being called “prairie primitives” by the Capitol’s snobbish socialites.
One of the most intriguing insights in Tony Kushner’s screenplay turns out to be the simple observation that if you flip the party affiliations and change the names the Washington of nearly 150 years ago seems hauntingly familiar. Thankfully, it’s also a lot more entertaining.
Lincoln is loaded with superb performances, beginning – naturally – with Daniel Day Lewis, who gives the legendary leader both the necessary aura of power and willfulness but also finds Lincoln’s earthier, more charming side. His stern decrees and political maneuvering mark him as a tough customer, yet he is equally capable of stepping down from his soapbox to share a homespun fable or a bit of folksy humor.
It’s also impossible not to be impressed by Sally Field, who lends a razor-sharp edginess and a heart-gripping desperation to Mary Todd Lincoln, who is haunted by the death of her son and increasingly unhappy with her role as what she calls her husband’s “soothsayer.”
Tommy Lee Jones is equally striking as Thaddeus Stevens, an activist who tries to tame his temper to help advance the Amendment. Jones provides many of the film’s lighter moments as he fights verbal duels with his opponents and pronounces the word “politics” with so much distaste it sounds as if he’s spitting out a porcupine.
Lincoln is a very theatrical sort of film, which should probably not surprise anyone familiar with Kushner’s background as a playwright. Aside from a few short sequences on the battlefield that bookend the picture, most of the drama unfolds indoors.
At first, this can seem a little stuffy and constricted, but the actors bring enough fire and conviction to the script that Lincoln turns out to be anything but a starchy stage play on film. In fact, it ranks as one of the strongest and least sentimental films Spielberg has ever made, a terrific tribute to one of our greatest figures.