A peculiar, powerful alchemy takes hold in “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s masterful portrait of the 16th U.S. president. Through that strange mix of realism, artifice, intimacy and scope that cinema uniquely possesses, viewers find themselves transported to 19th century Washington, where Abraham Lincoln — portrayed in a surpassingly sympathetic performance by Daniel Day-Lewis — has just been re-elected to a second term.
But instead of a grand tableau vivant that lays out the great man and his great deeds like so many too-perfect pieces of waxed fruit, Spielberg brings the leader and viewers down to ground level. Released from the plinth of the usual monumentality and worshipful adoration in which he’s so often trapped, Lincoln has been liberated — the better to joke, grieve, spin yarns, brood and work his considerable wits and wiles in the service of political sausage-making at its spiciest and most untidy.
Thus “Lincoln” gratifyingly dodges the kind of safe, starchy hagiography that some Spielberg skeptics feared. Rather, the filmmaker, who has brought Auschwitz and the besieged beaches at Normandy to life with such rigor and detail, proves yet again that he is the best filmmaker currently engaging in the form of assiduous research and creative interpretation known as historical drama.
Working from a dense, lively screenplay by playwright Tony Kushner (who last collaborated with Spielberg on “Munich”), Spielberg infuses “Lincoln” with energy, acumen, surprising humor and the unabashed affection for his subject that most Americans will wholly understand and probably share.
Coming on the heels of this week’s election, he also has given us a bracing dose of well-timed political escapism: For a couple of hours, at least, R’s and D’s alike can get the shrewd, sensitive, fearless, morally self-aware president they’ve been craving.
That Lincoln emerges with such endearing freshness and vigor has a lot to do with Day-Lewis’ performance, in which his character’s lanky world-weariness comes through with each expressive glance. Much has been made of the high, reedy rasp with which he delivers Lincoln’s endless supply of anecdotes, quotations, jokes and extemporanea. Although most historical descriptions of Lincoln’s voice — including Doris Kearns Goodwin’s in “Team of Rivals,” on which “Lincoln” is partially based — use the words “high” and “clear,” Day-Lewis seems to have focused more on the former than the latter.
But Day-Lewis’ voice soon becomes folded in with the myriad ways he so fully inhabits Lincoln as the man in full: a wartime president haunted by hundreds of thousands of casualties, desperate to bring an end to the carnage; the grieving father of a son who died two years earlier; the confounded husband of a woman prone to erratic mood swings. Sally Field plays Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd; although she’s a decade Day-Lewis’ senior, they play younger and older than their years so successfully that they wind up meeting in the middle as a couple who visibly wear the toll the past four years have taken on their and the nation’s lives.
Mostly, though, Day-Lewis introduces audiences to Lincoln the politician — the canny, even ruthless operator. As “Lincoln” opens, he is deciding whether to introduce the 13th Amendment to the Constitution — permanently abolishing slavery — in January 1865 or to wait until a far friendlier Republican-majority House is installed. It’s the fascinating world of horse-trading, truth-shaving, “shady work” and back channels that “Lincoln” brings to life most exhilaratingly, as the president bargains and sometimes bare-knuckles his way to getting what he wants. Viewers expecting Spielberg to give them back their most revered secular saint may be surprised — delightedly so — to discover that he hasn’t made the American version of “Gandhi” but the 19th-century version of “Advise and Consent.”
Audiences know the ultimate outcome of “Lincoln” (both the disposition of the 13th Amendment and Lincoln’s tragic end, which is gratuitously spelled out in one of the film’s few over-sentimental moments), but the movie still exerts a riveting grip on attention and imagination.
Kushner and Spielberg work in near-perfect harness to keep what is essentially a series of set pieces of men talking, galloping at a brisk, always absorbing clip. What makes “Lincoln” even more enjoyable is the cast of colorful foils for the title character’s noble quest: a gallery of rogues, roues and rapscallions who bring Lincoln’s finer qualities into sharp relief while humanizing him as one of their own (albeit at their idealized best).
So, audiences don’t just get the pleasure of having spent a couple of hours in the near-palpable presence of Lincoln as he warmly chats up constituents and Cabinet members (some of whom can be seen rolling their eyes when they sense another story coming on).
They also get to meet the radical Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones with fulminating high spirits and scenery-chomping zest; Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), one of Goodwin’s rivals who ended up being a crucial part of Lincoln’s brain trust; Ulysses S. Grant, impeccably played by Jared Harris in brief but poignant scenes of mutual regard and regret; and the scene-stealers of the piece, Bilbo, Latham and Schell (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson), who as vaguely disreputable operatives enlisted to procure “yes” votes hilariously skulk and smarm their way through “Lincoln” like a trio of Shakespearean fools (Rosencrantz, Guilderstern and Abramoff, anyone?). “It’s not illegal to bribe congressmen,” Latham notes. “They’ll starve otherwise.”
Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is spiked with so many uncanny present-day echoes — from partisan gridlock and casual corruption to non-denial denials and the unspoken (and unspeakable) prospect of a black man occupying the White House — that even viewers who don’t consider themselves history buffs will find it rousing, provocative and utterly relevant.
As vividly as Spielberg brings Lincoln and his material culture to life, he’s just as valuably made a celebration of the political process at the precise moment when we may need it most. Lincoln the man and “Lincoln” the movie serve to remind us that democracy and the leadership it demands aren’t always pretty. But they can be beautiful.
PG-13. Contains an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language. 149 minutes.