If, in some deluded haze, you decided to read every biography of Abraham Lincoln, at a rate of one book per week, it would take you roughly 22 years to finish. As of February 2012, there have been approximately 15,000 books published about the beloved, accomplished and ultimately perplexing 16th president of the United States. These innumerous accounts of him vary vastly. For many, he is the Great Emancipator, the Savior of Our Union. For others, he is the epitome of the American Dream — a self-made man with an impenetrable heart of gold. But this narrative trend somehow makes sense. Because, for the many who knew him, saw him or heard his delicate, timbrous voice, Abraham Lincoln was a storyteller.
Steven Spielberg knows a thing or two about telling tales. For the past 40 years, no other American director has produced or received such universal renown for his dexterous ability to weave accessible narratives amid such diverse subject matter. Whether it be the Holocaust, man-eating sharks, sci-fi adventure, World War II or the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Spielberg manages to infuse equal amounts of sense and sentimentality. His latest exploration into America’s past, “Lincoln,” is among his best. Like its titular subject, the film is engaging, charismatic, complex, amusing and emotionally powerful.
As Honest Abe, Daniel Day-Lewis moseys languidly from room to room with a perpetually placid glaze. His performance is impeccable, but his character is flawed. Contrary to how glorified and martyrlike Lincoln has become, Day-Lewis plays him as the distanced, mercurial character he most likely was. This Lincoln can be rash, cynical, calculating and opportunistic. In a moment of heightened fervor, we see Abe slap his eldest son Robert Todd (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) across the face with forceful purpose instead of hesitant restraint. But, in another moment, there he is — comforting his young son Tad by the fireplace. He is a fascinating enigma, a house divided upon itself, and to the credit of Spielberg, Day-Lewis and screenwriter Tony Kushner, the film never tries to pry open this twisted personality.
Despite its title, “Lincoln” is not a typical biopic. Yes, the president is there. And yes, he is central to the film. But, like the book that served as the inspiration for the movie (“Team of Rivals: The Politic Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin), the film is far more concerned about the political maneuvering surrounding the House of Representative’s passage of the 13th Amendment in January 1865. It’s an ensemble piece inhabited by intensely electrifying characters. Tommy Lee Jones pierces the film’s palette with his acerbic turn as Radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens. James Spader sashays about in the cold landscape of 1865 Washington D.C. as the drunken yet beguiling political operative W.N. Bilbo while David Strathairn plays the straight-faced and stoic secretary of state William Seward.
For 150 minutes, this colorful cast screams, panders, soliloquizes and speculates about the meaning of freedom, the nature of equality and the hairy intricacies of ending the Civil War. Spielberg cuts between these detailed scenes of private negotiation and personal struggle with fluid ease. While in “War Horse” his direction, coupled with John Williams’ melodramatic score, bordered on hyperbole, “Lincoln” showcases a more streamlined, subtle approach.
It is a story centered around contemplation and process, not the brash bangs of the war cannon or the hackneyed slow-motion found in every other Civil War film. In ornate offices and secluded sheds, Spielberg strikes a rare and personal chord with a historical moment that has been scrutinized without end for the past 150 years.
Toward the end of the film, when Lincoln meets with General Ulysses S. Grant, he is fatigued and physically wearied. Grant opines: The War has been a long, “intimate and ugly” affair. No matter how many words have been used to describe this cruel war and this most famous of leaders, those two ring the most true for Spielberg’s vision. His is an “intimate” and truly bewitching story of regular people during an immensely “ugly” time.