The ultimate prestige project from the ultimate prestige director, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is, without question, the greatest film ever made about the American legislative process. That I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any others should not detract from the film, which is a powerful and very impressive achievement.
“Lincoln,” with a screenplay adapted by Tony Kushner from what’s apparently one small section of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” is essentially a political procedural, about the quest by Lincoln and his allies to amass the necessary votes to pass the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.
Sure, there are sections about the endgame of the Civil War, the president’s relationships with his wife and son, and ultimately Lincoln’s assassination, but the majority of the film is about Lincoln, his advisers and allied legislators putting together the votes to get the amendment through the House of Representatives. The centerpiece of the third act is The Big Vote.
Sound boring? It’s really not. Spielberg makes it fascinating, helped by an impressively deep supporting cast of noted actors, one that goes about 25 deep. There are six or seven just amazing moments, most of which involve Lincoln or another character giving a rousing, powerful speech.
Speaking of which, the moment the film was first announced, I just assumed it would conclude with Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address over a soaring John Williams score. Instead… the conclusion uses a different speech, and the Gettysburg Address is presented much more powerfully, in the film’s first scene.
Daniel Day-Lewis gives a restrained performance as Lincoln, clearly going for accuracy when it comes to both appearance and voice; it’s like a night-and-day difference from the actor’s Oscar-winning turn in “There Will Be Blood.” The scenes with Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the president’s wife and son are very well-done as well, even if they feel somewhat disconnected from most of the film.
It’s the film’s supporting cast that’s truly transcendent, just a seemingly never-ending parade of great actors given brief moments to shine. It’s led by Tommy Lee Jones in one of his best screen turns, playing aging abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens; a late scene with Jones and S. Epatha Merkerson is the film’s greatest moment.
“Team of Rivals” fans will especially enjoy matching the actors with the historical figures. Hal Holbrook- made up, intentionally I’m sure, to look like Ted Kennedy- plays Preston Blair, David Strathairn is William Seward, Bruce McGill plays Edwin Stanton and Jared Harris is Ulysses S. Grant. James Spader and John Hawkes both get memorable turns as presidential advisors.
In the Congressional scenes, the pro-abolition side is led by Jones and David Costabile, with the anti-side led by Tim Blake Nelson and a scenery-chewing Lee Pace. And Walton Goggins and Michael Stuhlbarg both shine as swing voters. Even Adam Driver- the creepy shirtless boyfriend from Girls– shows up in a small part.
There’s nothing revisionist or controversial about Spielberg’s take and not a whole lot that differs from the established understanding of the man. The was-Lincoln-gay question is not addressed, nor any sort of conspiracy theories about the assassination. But that’s okay- it’s a very well-told and important story, that accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making a House whip-count interesting.