BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC As with the Civil War, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say Lincoln overstays its welcome. Not that I’m surprised. Could there be a prestige film like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln with a running time of 90 minutes? Of course not. Tradition demands that Oscar-bait like this stretch out for well past the two-hour mark, all the better to give weight to this historical drama about the tortuous passage of the 13th Amendment which effectively ended slavery in this country for evermore. It’s a shame because Tony Kushner’s script is riveting in its depiction of a revered statesman’s political and legal wrangling to get the amendment passed. Where it is less successful is in the parts that exist to satisfy the false drama and hagiography expected from a holiday season biopic
Still, Lincoln is a film full of pleasures, and any low-level disappointment is tempered by how high the film soars in its finest moments. Daniel Day-Lewis effortlessly embodies our rich ideal of the man: wise, noble and all too aware of his own fallibility. (None of G.W. Bush’s “I can’t recall any mistakes I’ve made” bluster here.) Day-Lewis renders all these traits immediate and indelible, aided immeasurably by dialogue often re-purposed from Lincoln’s own words. Kushner describes Lincoln’s thinking as Talmudic and Day-Lewis does play him almost as a wise, ever-reasoning Rabbi. He’s not immune to anger and frustration, but a soul of patient intelligence shines through. Watching him channel the force of nature that is Lincoln the man is nothing short of awe-inspiring to behold.
Lincoln screenwriter Kushner is of course the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright behind Angels in America and probably the nation’s most revered playwright. Spielberg and Kushner’s previous collaboration on Israeli assassin drama Munich resulted in what is arguably Spielberg’s toughest-minded film and Kushner’s rigorously intellectual writing is a welcome counterbalance to Spielberg’s often facile sentimentality. Critics often praise Schindler’s List as a point when Spielberg climbed a plateau to greatness, ignoring his predilection towards flattening-out and rendering simplistic the ambiguous characters of history. Kushner’s writing for Lincoln again helps to deepen the work of Spielberg, with a script that must be among the most dense and conversation-driven with which the director has ever worked.
Spielberg is nothing if not a diviner of the zeitgeist, and these events, set 140-odd years ago, hold a stirring modern relevance. Lincoln, like Obama, has just won a decisive re-election and he finds himself puzzling over how to use his ephemeral political clout. The Emancipation Proclamation was a product of special “wartime powers” but unless Lincoln can free the slaves legally with the 13th Amendment, their ownership will be reinstated upon the war’s rapidly-advancing conclusion. In darkened, gas-lit quarters, Lincoln and his cabinet argue out strategies for getting such an amendment passed, with shady William Bilbo (James Spader) leading a crew of realpolitik operatives on an often lowdown and dirty mission to round up the necessary Congressional votes.
As much as the stellar cast, the milieu Spielberg and Kushner conjure up is the real star here: the dimly-lit backrooms of political expediency, the bustling White House with Tad Lincoln being pulled around its drafty hallways in a goat-driven wagon, and the grisly war on their doorstep give the film a sense of realism. Kushner seems most at home writing the conversations of the men pursuing politics in this oily milieu, giving the dialogue an archaic but clear cadence that is a pleasure to hear spoken. With a devilish glint in his eyes, Spader’s profane hustler Bilbo is a scene-stealer by design and how nice it is to have a showcase like this for Spader, who spent so many years playing fussy young men of privilege. Although Tommy Lee Jones brings a little too much Tommy Lee Jones to the role of longtime abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, Sally Fields brings an inviolable matriarchal gravitas to her role as the power behind the throne, Mary Todd Lincoln.
Still, the chamber piece for the stage that Kushner might have written with this material is easy to imagine as the most efficient use of the good ideas here, when the film expands to encompass the whole world of 1865 is where it stumbles. The freedom of African Americans is at the heart of the drama, so of course it makes sense to add them to the cast, but did they have to be such empty vessels? An early scene shows two black soldiers in conversation with Lincoln and each get a sentence or two to reflect their segment of the century’s forthcoming debate. The White House butler and Mary’s personal servant each get to reference an injustice in their lives and then go back to being silent-but-noble reminders of the humanity at the center of the story.
There is a beautifully shot scene early on of Lincoln carrying Tad to bed on his back but otherwise the domestic scenes are distressingly rote. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Abe’s son Robert gets to whine in a silly mustache about not being able to enlist and Mary and Abe’s boudoir arguments are underlined by ominous claps of thunder. John Williams’ painfully obvious score irks as well, ready to underline the script’s most speechifying moments with some “Pomp and Circumstance” variation.
All this peripheral tomfoolery stretches the film to outsize length, and the drama itself can barely withstand the strain of such epic scope. The script spends too much time trying to milk suspense out of its final vote, the outcome of which is long past being old news by the time it finally arrives. That anti-climax of the final vote call sets up expectations of a closing suspenseful moment in the Ford Theater, perhaps a Tony Soprano-style hard cut to blackness. Although it would have played to every one of Spielberg’s strengths, the director restrains himself from staging the assassination scene. As an unpredictable refraction of the violence The United States endured, the spectacle of the war’s bloody brutality coming home to roost seems like an emotional, not to mention historical, necessity. With a classic bait and switch, Spielberg leaves the assassination off screen, making the film seem somewhat timid in its unwillingness to confront the tragedy head-on.
Beyond all these quibbles, it is Day-Lewis’ astonishing performance that makes Lincoln the must-see of the season. Although Lincoln is torn between recreating historical facts or burnishing national legends, seeing Day-Lewis in a larger-than-life role that is at long last worthy of his over-sized talent is in itself a moment of history in the making.