A legendary president works his magic on Capitol Hill.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
“See this movie”—and “take your children,” too, said A.O. Scott in The New York Times. A story about Abe Lincoln and his Washington during the president’sfinal months, it stands “among the finest films ever made about politics” because it so successfully captures “the squalor and the vigor, the glory and the corruption” of a great republic in action. In January 1865, a just re-elected Lincoln has decided to secure the permanent abolition of slavery by pushing the 13th Amendment through a lame-duck Congress before the Southern states lay down arms and rejoin the Union. But this is a civics lesson with real fire, and screenwriter Tony Kushner “fills nearly every scene” with literate argument, while director Steven Spielberg gradually builds “a symphony of tragedy and hope.” Even so, “there is nothing bravura” about Spielberg’s touch, said Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. He “delivers selfless, pulled-back satisfactions,” working almost purely in service of story.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrait of Lincoln is “startling, unsettling, and entirely convincing,” said Joe Morgenstern in The Wall Street Journal. Much will be said about the high, reedy voice the actor affects—a voice apparently closer to Lincoln’s own than the stentorian bass we usually hear. But Day-Lewis famously works “from the inside out,” and here the key to his performance is “his masterly grasp of Lincoln’s quicksilver spirit.” This is a country-lawyer president who can tell a bawdy joke a moment before turning stone serious about the national issues at hand. Behind Day-Lewis stands “one of the richest and deepest casts in recent Hollywood history,” said Andrew O’Hehir in Salon.com. Tommy Lee Jones gets a juicy role as an abolitionist congressman, while James Spader gives a “memorable” bit turn as a shady operative hired to push the amendment. The decision to cast Sally Field as Mary Lincoln—a woman who’s feared but little loved—proves “sheer genius.”
The urge to deify Lincoln eventually becomes too strong, and “Spielberg caves in,” said Ty Burr in The Boston Globe. But who can blame him? As invested as this movie is in showing us flaws in our leaders and our institutions, it’s also about how the right leader can steer the polity past those flaws. Lincoln’s triumph speaks to the power of reason and to the “power of words to give body and urgency to reason.” If you consider this movie “too talky,” well, “you may not be worthy of it.”