When you hear that Steven Spielberg directed an Abraham Lincoln biopic, you get an image in your head of what it must look like: overtly sentimental, grand in scale, and more about idealized hero worship than anything else. The famed director's historical dramas tend to be maudlin affairs, custom-made for history classrooms, and no doubt Lincoln will be shown to many a middle school over the ensuing decades. But, for all the self-importance and pseudo-educational aims, never for a second does Spielberg's take feel dry. In fact, it can be downright hilarious.
Looking at the president's last four months of life, Lincoln brings the legend down-to-earth rather than holding him up on a pedestal. That's not to say it renders him flawed — it doesn't. In a sense, this is still hero worship. But it's much more interested in the man than in the legacy left behind. Yes, it's technically about Lincoln abolishing slavery, but it's much more about the process than the result. The focus is on negations, on the way Lincoln played the political game as much as a candidate in today's media frenzy must, and on watching him practice bipartisan table manners with members of the abolitionist GOP as well as the more socially disinterested Democrats (my, how things have changed.)
I'm sure it's starting to sound dry again, but Daniel Day-Lewis' remarkable performance in the title role will quickly quell any fears of boredom. Much has been made of his over-the-top method acting — word is that he was texting Sally Field, who plays Mary Todd Lincoln, while in character as Abe — but if that's what it took to achieve a human portrayal of such an iconic man, then so be it. The high-pitched voice, eternal calm, and kindly manner immediately separate his performance from the imposing figure we met in history books. More than anything, it's the humor that separates this portrayal from any others past. Spielberg's Lincoln is an incorrigible raconteur, and has a bit of a snarky side when it suits him. Not content to play the president as a hero, Day-Lewis brings him to life as a smooth negotiator, as sly as he is wise.
Luckily, the rest of the cast is more than up to the challenge of keeping up with the method-acting madness. Spielberg filled out his roster with a number of recognizable faces, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Abe's son Robert, Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens, and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens (he steals every scene). Much of the fun in the film comes from watching the ensemble screaming over each other in the House of Representatives, but it's Jones' sardonic bite and verbose dismissals that provide the heartiest of the film's ample laughs. I know it's hard to believe, but with all the overlapping dialogue and multi-layered verbal humor, Lincoln can at times feel more like a screwball comedy or a Robert Altman film than a historical drama.
Of course, the cast brings a set of flaws. Seeing such uniformly recognizable faces hidden behind the fake beards and wigs occasionally leaves Lincoln feeling like the world's most prestigious middle school play. This is especially true when Spielberg goes broad, as he's prone to. Scenes of Lincoln melodramatically battling with his wife don't entertain with half the vigor of sequences where he passive-aggressively rattles his political opponents. It's the tiny glances, stately photography, and intense verbal dueling that remain in your memory long after you see the film, not the grand emotional payoffs.
Indeed, I couldn't help but wish they had left out the assassinations, famous speeches, and everything else ripe for public school education to focus instead on the board room dealings that led to the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The snippets of Lincoln's private life beef up the running time to 150 minutes, and the disconnect between the political narrative and the more broadly biographical scenes leaves things feeling a bit long. You'd think Spielberg would handle the iconic moments better than anything, but Tony Kushner's script (he also wrote Munich) excels in arguments and conflict, not catharsis. If there's a problem here at all, it's in the shaky tone — the awe-eyed finales and recreations of well-known historical moments don't feel nearly as real as the quieter political scenes.
In spite of the faults, Lincoln brings a real sense of vivacity to a story that should seem frozen in time. There's not even much attempt to modernize it. Those combing over the subtext of this post-election release searching for a detailed study of modern America will be left wanting. It only makes the film's inherent liveliness a more impressive achievement.