Lincoln mirrors current U.S. political affairs
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field. Rated PG. Opens Friday, November 16, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas
Steven Spielberg has been trying to make Lincoln for more than a decade, and the famously Democratic director has admitted that the final product is being released just after a major U.S. election for good reason: he worried about confusing voters with the 16th (and some say best) president’s status as the founder of the Republican party. A hundred years later, the 37th (and some say worst) president, Richard Nixon, figured out how to cleave southern racists to the GOP. And for how these demographics have played out, please refer to Obama v. Romney, 11/6/12.
That kind of political parsing is exactly what Spielberg is into here, via Tony Kushner’s surprisingly straightforward screenplay, and the film resembles an extended episode of The West Wing set in dark, cold, and dirty quarters, with beards. Here, the bushy Ahab number is worn by Daniel Day-Lewis, who splendidly captures the rail splitter’s Mark Twain–like penchant for dropping windy aphorisms into heated discussions.
He also adopts a shuffling gait and a higher-timbred voice than Raymond Massey and Gregory Peck led us to believe, while much of the language comes from the record, especially regarding Lincoln’s shifting, lawyerly views on slavery and its aftermath. We’re limited to the last few months of the exhausted president’s life, in 1865, when he and trusted secretary of state William Seward (David Strathairn) focused on ramming through a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery.
The quietly Oscar-courting movie succeeds—and mirrors today’s affairs—to the extent that it focuses on the president’s attempts to rein in his radical left (memorably headed by Tommy Lee Jones’s bewigged Ohio abolitionist, Thaddeus Stevens) and chip away at right-wing Dixiecrats (led by Lee Pace’s reptilian Fernando Wood) for a nail-biting vote.
The tale is more cumbersome when dwelling on his domestic life, with Sally Field as the chronically depressed Mary Todd Lincoln. And attempts to get black voices into the discussion are fitful at best. It also wears out its 149-minute welcome by continuing for a few fumbling scenes after its natural finish, with that stovepipe hat, in tintype silhouette, shuffling off into history.
Watch the trailer for Lincoln.