Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones. Written by Tony Kushner. Directed by Steven Spielberg. PG. 139 min. Opens Nov. 9.
An embattled president, a divided country, a contentious House of Representatives, a controversial piece of bipartisan legislation: Lincoln doesn’t exactly shy away from 21st-century allegory. Steven Spielberg’s historical drama, about the Great Emancipator’s attempt to pass an amendment outlawing slavery on the eve of the end of the Civil War, seems intended as a commentary on the presidency of Barack Obama—not least of all in its idea that sometimes the commander-in-chief needs to throw his weight around to dislodge intractable opponents.
This is heavy stuff, but thankfully, Lincoln opts for a largely comic tone. The scenes of Lincoln’s team of fixers (including James Spader and John Hawkes) canvassing timorous Democratic congressmen for their votes are fleet and funny. Tony Kushner’s screenplay is talky in the extreme, which not only makes for a refreshing change of pace from the mostly mute, dumbstruck pageantry of Spielberg’s recent and awful War Horse, but also energizes Lincoln as a character. As played by a surprisingly unshowy Day-Lewis (who, with two Oscars already on his mantle, seems content not to swing for the fences), he’s not a stoic icon but a sly raconteur. This Lincoln has well-rehearsed anecdotes
for every situation, a tactic that not only endears him to his staff, but also buys time while staring down his rivals.
Certainly, Lincoln has a broad, hagiographic aspect to it, and its dramatically backlit, suitable-for-framing imagery will prompt eye-rolls from those who find Spielberg’s filmmaking too burnished for its own good. But its undeniable squareness is marshalled in the service of an urgent, contemporary point-of-view. Lincoln is a calculatedly heroic account of democracy in action whose happy ending (and tragic epilogue) are preordained. But it also resonates, even more strongly, as a movie about the pitfalls of hardline politics and the very worthy perils of reaching across the aisle—even if your opponents would rather keep their hands to themselves.