Lincoln: Spielberg’s Urgent Civics Lesson

Daniel Day-Lewis gives a towering performance as a President who could charm and cajole to pass crucial legislation

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David James / DreamWorks / 20th Century Fox / AP

To his congressional adversaries, he is a tyrant — “King Abrahamus Lincolnus” — and to his allies, a weakling: “the capitulating compromiser.” Thaddeus Stevens, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, tells him, “I lead. You should try it some time.” It is the winter of 1864–65, but the barbs directed at Abraham Lincoln have the prickly familiarity of the insults that have been directed at Barack Obama over the past few years: that he was a strange, aloof man convinced of his superiority to the congressional rabble who favored elevated oratory over the mucky trench work needed to pass legislation.

The analogy of the 16th and 44th U.S. Presidents provides a fascinating undercurrent to Lincoln, the sturdy, sometimes starchy drama directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner. Rather than add to the dozens of movie biographies of the Great Emancipator, Kushner dipped into Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln to focus on the President’s drive for the House ratification of the 13th Amendment. Boasting an urgent density of detail and cunning performances by Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role and Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens, Lincoln is a civics lesson that frequently brings life to the nation’s central political and moral debate. Just as important, it joins Argo as a movie that dares to remind American moviegoers that its government can achieve great victories against appalling odds.

(MORE: Tony Kushner on Lincoln Screenplay, Séances, Greatest Political Speech )

In 1863 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation under his war powers as Commander in Chief. With the Civil War drawing to a close, he needed a constitutional amendment to certify the abolition of slavery in all states, Union as well as Confederate. To Lincoln, and to the Senate that passed it, the amendment would prove the truth of Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal.” (Not all women, mind you: it would be six amendments and 55 years later before U.S. women got the vote.) But the House was divided between abolitionist Republicans and Confederate-leaning Democrats, called Copperheads, who invoked Scripture to oppose the law. As New York Democrat Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) thunders, “Congress must not declare equal those whom God has created unequal.”

Like Obama, who in 2009 deferred action on jobs legislation to spend nearly a year pushing his health care bill, Lincoln is accused of delaying the war’s end until the House has passed the 13th Amendment. But unlike Obama, Lincoln eagerly cuts deals with wavering Congressmen, employing cajolery, patronage and veiled threats to secure the legislation. Ignoring the ethical clucking of his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), Lincoln shows that, to be a great statesman, it doesn’t hurt to be a savvy politician.

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As the director of this teeming fresco of idealism and compromise, Spielberg is less the suave manager of emotions than the expert wrangler of crowds — a talent he displayed in his 1997 Amistad, another history lesson about black slaves and the Congress. In Lincoln he crams perhaps a hundred people into the frame during the House fracas. Though the movie spends little time on the battlefield, the debate scenes are like war vignettes, but with words for swords. Taking a visual cue from Ken Burns’ documentary epic The Civil War, which covered much the same ground, Spielberg employs tracking shots that move across the Congressmen, then creep in for closeups. The difference is that, here, the photos move and engage in rhetoric that may be fierce eloquence or the standard flatulence of filibustering hacks. (Another touchstone to today’s electors.)

Abraham Lincoln is the movies’ favorite President, with more than 300 portrayals in a century of Hollywood hagiography, from Ralph Ince in the 1911 The Battle Hymn of the Republic to Benjamin Walker in this summer’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In the decade of the 1910s, Ince played Lincoln eight times, John Ford’s actor brother Francis in another eight films and Benjamin Chapin 14 times. In the 1920s and ’30s, character actor Frank McGlynn Sr. made a career of Lincoln impersonation with more than a dozen films, including John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman and, with Shirley Temple, The Littlest Rebel. Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Tom Hanks, Sam Waterston, Jason Robards and Hal Holbrook (who has a small role in Lincoln as presidential adviser Preston Blair) have all lent their faces and voices to extend the legend of the Great Emancipator.

(VIDEO: Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis Talk to TIME About Making Lincoln)

The trick is to lend both plausibility and surprise to the portrayal, and Day-Lewis, in just his fifth film role in the 15 years since The Boxer, meets the challenge smartly. Day-Lewis has always suggested an actor in isolation, not just because of his fondness for remaining in character throughout the filming process but also because he seems so inner-directed, debating not the other actors but himself. That technique suits Lincoln, a remote and towering figure who wrestles in public with his own angels and demons — and who speaks, with apparent historical accuracy, in a thin, reedy voice that makes him sound like Walter Brennan, with teeth.

Day-Lewis’ Lincoln indulges the restlessness of his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), chafing to join the war, and the dire presentiments of his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field, bold and acute). “You alone,” he tells Mary, “may lighten this burden or render it intolerable.” But the family’s anguish, however illuminating, is not the President’s or the movie’s chief concern. Lincoln sees any burden as tolerable to achieve his aims. The man has an amendment to pass and, only then, a war to win.

He will win both with wit as well as grit, drawing on his country boy–lawyer anecdotes that leaven the movie’s weighty tone even as they send his exasperated listeners’ eyebrows through their hairlines. “I could write shorter sermons,” Abe acknowledges, “but once I start, I get too lazy to stop.” At nearly 2½ hours, this high-IQ sermon is long but never lazy. Renouncing his tendency to make every movie take emotional flight, Spielberg sticks to the story as Kushner has artfully compressed it. Lincoln is brain food and, at another pivotal moment in American political history, an instructive feast.

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