Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a remarkable film for many reasons, but it is first and foremost nimble-footed, crowd-pleasing entertainment. It’s really funny. He’s really funny. Tasked with dramatizing some of the most significant moments of the 19th century, Spielberg shoots the picture as a bustling ensemble comedy. There’s precious little pageantry here, just a lot of deeply flawed, quicksilver wits trying to muddle their way through changing the course of American history.
Daniel Day-Lewis sneaks up underneath the role, wearing the stovepipe hat and chin beard not as iconic emblems, but the affectations of a jack-legged, folksy country lawyer who just so happens to always be the smartest guy in the room. There’s nothing stentorian about his proclamations; this Honest Abe conceals his sermons within oddball anecdotes and lowbrow shit jokes. Yet the whole time his eyes are alight, reading the situation and taking measure of opponents who invariably underestimate him. It’s one of Day-Lewis’ least showy performances, sly and internalized with a gentle temperament that’s impossibly endearing.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner avoid the cradle-to-grave structure that plagues most Hollywood bio-pics. Working in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, they zero in on the passage of the 13th Amendment, allowing Lincoln’s biographical details to trickle in the background. For all intents and purposes a Congressional procedural, Lincoln begins in the waning days of the Civil War and follows our commander-in-chief attempting to ram the Constitutional amendment banning slavery through a hostile House of Representatives; the thrill is watching this cunning old dog cajole and manipulate an ideologically divided, bumbling government.
Kushner’s screenplay is magnificent, containing grand flights of often off-color oratory. Indeed, the picture is nearly stolen outright by Tommy Lee Jones as die-hard abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, barking grandiloquent, barn-burning insults.
Of course, there is more to Lincoln than political farce. We all know how this story ends, and the human cost of the Civil War looms large in the background. Spielberg’s off-handed elegance fortells future tragedy within the ominous frames, but from moment to moment, this picture is full of life.