Steven Spielberg's new movie, Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis, might have resulted in rather a dry exercise in political brinksmanship, as our most illustrious President maneuvered to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, before the end of Civil War hostilities. Much cigar-smoke fills the screen, and lots of backroom deals are made with and by disreputable political characters.
But somehow, after sixty minutes of laborious set-up, the dramatic momentum picks up steam, as does our acceptance of Day-Lewis as a credible stand-in for the most iconic American politician in the last century-and-a-half. No small task, that — lesser actors might have brought considerably more fire and brimstone to the role, and a deeper, more stentorian vocal approach.
Instead — and I suppose we have Mr. Spielberg to thank for this as well — the actor's portrayal of our beloved 16th President is a study in underplaying and restraint. Abraham Lincoln is not represented as a mythical, larger-than-life visionary, but as a supremely moral husband, father and man of his convictions. His voice is small and high and he is much given to horseplay and joke-telling. He is more Will Rogers than Julius Caesar, and vive la difference.
A delicate balance is finally struck in this 150-minute epic between Lincoln the human being and Lincoln the political genius behind the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Truth be told, though, there are moments in the middle where one feels like one is in the middle of a 35mm post-doctoral history seminar, as a parade of now-forgotten Congressmen are lobbied and bullied and seduced by a trio of backroom operatives (James Spader being the most amusing of the lot).
One of the film's more humanizing strategies was to portray the sometimes tortured relations between the President and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, played with earnest emotion by Sally Field. Confession: I would have bet my last dollar that Ms. Field would be swallowed whole by Day-Lewis's outsize performance, but she not only held her own, she arguably anchored this testosterone-heavy drama with her heartful and sensitive performance. You go, Gidget.
By the end of this well-researched historical bio-pic (based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln"), one's lust to learn more about Lincoln is set in motion, and more importantly, one's heart is inflamed for the kind of country that once produced leaders whose courage and humanity served to change the course of history. Lincoln the man is greater than Lincoln the movie, but just by the length of his black stovepipe hat.