Lincoln (Touchstone Pictures, PG-13)

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lincoln sqAs you have probably gathered, this film could hardly be better cast than it is. Day-Lewis is always memorable, of course, and here he doesn’t disappoint.

 

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If you’re looking for something not to like about the new, extremely high-profile Steven Spielberg picture Lincoln, there is definitely some stuff to pick apart. You almost kind of want to, given that there will probably be no movie with a higher pedigree than this one to be released anytime soon. Director? Two-time Best Director winner Spielberg. Star? Two-time Best Actor-winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Screenwriter? Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, who authored both Angels in America and Spielberg’s 2005 film Munich. See what I mean? And this isn’t even to get into the supporting cast or behind-the-scenes filmmakers. Really, though, what’s the use? I’m not always the biggest Spielberg fan, and even I’m happy to report that Lincoln is the most solid film he’s made in quite some time; perhaps since 1993’s Schindler’s List.

One thing I feel like I should clarify, and also that the film’s marketing campaign should clarify: Despite what the film’s title and campaign would have you believe, this is not a biographical picture about Abraham Lincoln. It is, of course, about him, but perhaps not in the way that you’d expect or are led to believe; it really only concerns the last four months of the Civil War, and is much more about the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution than it is about Lincoln himself. In fact, I’d estimate that that Day-Lewis is onscreen as Lincoln in perhaps only two-thirds of the film; it could have just as aptly been titled Stevens, after Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens, who is just as integral to the plot as Lincoln is, and who gets about the same amount of screen time.

But let’s look at the movie as it is, and not the movie the publicists seem to want it to be. The screenplay is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s beloved bestseller Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Team of Rivals would have been a much better title for the film, as that gets as quite a bit closer to what it is actually about), and is a drama about how Lincoln got the controversial Emancipation Proclamation passed. How the film depicts this is a combination of efforts from the affably human and likeable Lincoln himself, the curmudgeonly leadership of the Ways and Means Committee chairman and longtime abolitionist Stevens, and the rowdy manipulating of a gang of political goofballs, Bilbo (James Spader), Latham (John Hawkes, who’s likely to face off against Day-Lewis for the Best Actor Oscar this year, for his performance in The Sessions), and Schell (Tim Blake Nelson).

As you have probably gathered, this film could hardly be better cast than it is. Day-Lewis is always memorable, of course, and here he doesn’t disappoint. The best thing he (and Kushner, and Goodwin) do with Lincoln as a character is to make him highly amused at himself; he’s always wanting to regale those listening to him with vaguely off-color stories, which he, himself, thinks are so funny, he can hardly get them out for chuckling at his own wit. What sounds like it would probably be annoying on paper is very endearing in the film, especially in the framework of one of the most iconic figures in American history. (As Goodwin reports it, this is also an accurate depiction of the way Lincoln really was.) Elsewhere, Stevens is arguably the real hero of the film, and Tommy Lee Jones, another always-good actor (though in a different way than Day-Lewis tends to be), easily holds his own against Day-Lewis in terms of likeability and memorability—though I can be a sucker for rascally old politicians in film, so long as their views line up with my own.

Now that the election is over, it’s easy to resist the urge to read things as political statements, since we don’t absolutely have to anymore. Still, if you’re willing to reopen that part of your brain so soon, it’s worth the effort here. Although it’s done subtly, it isn’t hard to spot the parallels that openly gay Kushner draws between the abolitionist movement and the current gay rights movement, all the while repurposing terms that provoke such a gut reaction these days as “Republican,” “Democrat,” and “Conservative” to a closer (and glaring, by comparison) definition of what they meant circa the mid-1800s. | Pete Timmermann

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