For all the pivotal American history recreated in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which charts the last four months of our 16th president’s life, one of the film’s most striking elements is its vast ensemble cast. Packed with familiar faces, the starry company brings to life a dense population of varied souls, each one’s world upended by abolition and the Civil War. Through these people, Lincoln makes palpable a wild cultural impact that spread like a spidery crack in glass. Every individual, no matter how briefly presented (the cameos range from Adam Driver to S. Epatha Merkerson), seems uniquely, yet universally, invested in this landmark moment in time, and the film’s frenzied display of moral murk and diversity trumpets the need for a calming voice of reason. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), it would appear, was that voice, a composed and contemplative leader capable of sifting through the hubbub. “Say all we’ve done is shown the world that democracy isn’t chaos?” the president offers near film’s end, his words cementing him as a broad-minded arbitrator.
Written by Tony Kushner, Lincoln may further the heroism so associated with its subject, and favor a liberal viewpoint that leers down at the Confederates (squirrelly Jackie Earle Haley is progress-resisting Alexander Stevens, Vice President of the Confederate States), but it’s no bleeding-heart glamorization. Heavily and delectably dialogue-driven, the film is a behind-the-curtain look at 19th-century politics, which is shown to have been just as filled with cunning and opportunism as it was with goodwill and grand ideas. Be it the peace-seeking Republican Francis Blair (Hal Holbrook) or Lincoln’s trusty secretary of state, William Seward (David Strathairn), everyone has different thoughts on how the president should proceed, as he juggles the dual efforts of ending the war and passing the slavery-crushing 13th Amendment. The movie illuminates power players’ opinions of their leader, a viral paranoia of what abolition might portend, and the early days of zealous lobbyists (two of them played by John Hawkes and James Spader). In the weeks leading up to the amendment’s vote, scalding debates unfold in the House of Representatives, with hard-headed Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) leading the charge for the Democrats, and radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) spearheading the opposition, continuing his career-long—and, ultimately, personal—fight to end slavery.
Depicting the dawn of the GOP, Lincoln highlights the gulf that’s formed between the so-called “Lincoln Republicans” and what the party’s become, as surely, from a modern perspective, the ideals of the movie’s sparring groups seem swapped. Though cherished as a liberal hero, Lincoln was the first Republican president, and the political evolution adds ample wrinkles to the story’s fascination. In the film’s most memorable monologue, the president addresses his cabinet and muses over his Emancipation Proclamation, trying to reconcile the troubles of federally axing slavery (or claiming and freeing slaves as spoils of war), which would eclipse individual states’ rights. His words are stocked with insight and implication, addressing the ageless American concern over property ownership, while equally revealing his wisdom and doubts. For all his apparent abilities to drown out the din and take action, the president is shown as an open-eared sponge, malleable and ponderous and humble. He asks young, anonymous telegraphers what they think of one’s role in the world, and he levels with his household employee, Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), who presses him for his thoughts on blacks, a people unable to decide if this man is messiah or false idol. “I don’t know you any more than I know anyone,” Lincoln tells Elizabeth, “but I believe you deserve to expect what I expect. And I’ll get used to you.” As chilly as it is magnanimous, the passage deflates the president’s flowery glorification, but isolates him from the white majority just enough to promise he’ll make a difference.
As probing as this film is in regard to the political landscape of the 1860s, it digs nearly as deep into Lincoln’s personal life, which was stricken by tragedy and evidently ruled over by Mary Todd (Sally Field), a volatile conservative grieving the loss of young son Willie, who died at age 11 of typhoid fever. Letting the side effects of power and aristocracy spill into private rooms, Kushner pens gripping, guilt-ridden scenes between Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, all of them wonderfully played by Day-Lewis and a truly transcendent Field. The sacrifices of a political family are tinged with intimations of a loveless marriage and mental illness, and the mysterious influence of the woman behind the man manifests rivetingly, such as during a White House party that sees Mary Todd aim her fierce prowess and dissatisfaction at Thaddeus. True to his character, Day-Lewis is the steady hand to Field and Jones’s impassioned personalities, and his largely subtle performance is one of world-weary dignity and soft spikes of intensity. There’s humor in it, too, as Lincoln’s penchant for labored philosophizing yields many spirited anecdotes, which exasperate his scrambling underlings, who think he’s off-target. Along with a growing concern for his eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who itches to disobey his parents and join the military, the affable quirk serves as an effective humanizer, while also conveying a president’s vital charismatic side.
For Spielberg, Lincoln is a surprisingly un-showy affair, with a subdued palette to match its subject’s disposition. Battlefields fill the screen in the first and third acts, but this is no usual Spielbergian spectacle, despite the recurrence of ethereal backlighting, and DP Janusz Kamiński’s search for close-up facial reactions. John Williams’s distinguished score rarely soars above the light caress of piano keys, as Spielberg shows little desire to pad the inherent drama of Kushner’s dizzyingly well-researched and pristinely balanced script. Lincoln is overlong, and as it nears its inevitable end, with the commander in chief slain off camera, the director lets his film lurch before somewhat sputtering to a halt. But what the movie finally communicates is that which seems most fortunate about Lincoln’s life: Though he died as a direct result of his tide-turning actions, the president seems to have been given just enough time in this world to change it.