Film Reviews

Sometimes a man has got to take a stand: Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

Hot Rod Lincoln

Spielberg puts the pedal to the storytelling metal, recounting the race to end slavery

I don’t cotton much to biopics. Tuned into part of Gandhi once and thought I was watching a Speedo competition. And historical dramas I approach warily, because the actors all seem to be costumed from the same closet, the one filled with gowns and hose from Gone With the Wind–not just the gowns, but the puffed up, fruity accents. Mostly, it’s the actors. They exaggerate, they pontificate, they sound and look like a bunch of sixth-graders putting on Timon of Athens.

But then I remember The Last of the Mohicans and My Left Foot and realize: The cure for bad biopics and historicals is easy. Just cast Daniel Day-Lewis. That’s what Steven Spielberg has done for Lincoln, cut and pasted by playwright Tony Kushner from the archives of the most thoroughly discussed and annotated politician in history. (The credited source is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals.)

More politics may come as a surprise, but Lincoln is the perfect palate cleanser after the overwrought theatrics of the recent election. First, there are the coincidences, strong enough that Spielberg delayed release until after Nov. 6: a tall, skinny President from Illinois winning a highly contested re-election and immediately confronted with the necessity to take immediate action on a very unpopular piece of legislation–the Thirteenth Amendment, the one that outlaws slavery.

Second, there’s the authenticity, palpable as the Mannequin from Massachusetts was cardboard. Day-Lewis is Lincoln as recorded and reported, not some dry stick with a toothbrush beard walking on water on his way to a marble throne in the Memorial. That is to say, he’s revered–and reviled–as “Abe Africanus.” He’s a folksy storyteller whose shaggy dog tales always come to a succinct point, confounding more argumentative and (they flatter themselves) intelligent men. He’s conflicted–maybe freeing the slaves isn’t such a good idea if it prolongs the war’s slaughter and plunges his hysterically grieving wife into deeper depression over the prospect of their eldest son being killed in the field. He’s a president who declares martial law even while believing he may be doing so illegally, who suspends civil liberties and, when confronted with opposition in the chambers, can remind a wavering congressman that he is “mantled in the immense power of the executive.”

Day-Lewis embodies every creak and groan of a man holding himself together under inhuman pressures, yet who isn’t above getting on his hands and knees to put another lump of coal on the fire or let his youngest son climb onto his aching back for a ride up to bed. Best of all, we see Lincoln, not the actor within. For this they give Oscars.

The other star of the movie is Spielberg’s group portrait of the egotistical, invective-hurling orators and patronage seekers of our beloved Congress. Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson–talk about a team of rivals. At home in the White House, Sally Field gives it her Oscar-worthy all as the most controversial of all the First Ladies. Not least, grounding us, is the muddy palate and historically accurate vision of life under wartime in the Capitol and its environs.

Lincoln is meaty and yeasty, an ideal Thanksgiving entree for the whole ‘ohana. That it comes at a good time to reflect on the fragility of our precious union does not have to be said–but even so, here’s a nudge. Go with your favorite Tea Partier, the one who passes you the gravy even as he calls you a “taker.” Uplift never felt so good. It may even help you forget how much you ate.