Tell audiences they’re about to see a 149-minute drama about the struggle to finesse the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives, and all but the heartiest cinephiles — shortly after asking, “Wait, which one’s the 13th Amendment?” — would be scrambling for the exits.
“Lincoln,” though, is a revelation.
It’s no stodgy costume drama, no sweeping historical biopic tracing his path from Kentucky to the White House.
Also, there are no vampires.
In an odd twist, you pick up more biographical details in the ridiculous “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” but the prestigious “Lincoln” has a better sense of humor — at times, it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious — and is wildly more entertaining.
In the hands of director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”), “Lincoln” plays out like a fantastically elaborate “West Wing” prequel, offering an inside look at the political process as Honest Abe (Daniel Day-Lewis) goes off on Jed Bartlet-style tangents, sharing anecdotes and jokes — often to the dismay of his advisers — and generally elocuting all over the place.
By limiting itself almost entirely to the events of January 1865, “Lincoln” personalizes the president, through moments great and small, like rarely before. Far from the stiff, Disney Hall of Presidents gloves with which he’s usually handled, this Lincoln has real worries and doubts.
Slavery and the Civil War are weighing heavy on his mind. He’s facing pressure from all sides, including his wife (Sally Field). After reluctantly letting his headstrong son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) enlist, he knows full well that if anything happens to Robert before he can end the war, he’ll have to answer to her wrath.
This Lincoln is conflicted and flawed, admitting the Emancipation Proclamation may have been illegal.
He may not even be above prolonging the Civil War to ensure the 13th Amendment — that’s the one abolishing slavery, by the way — has enough support.
And he’s equally at home discussing Euclid’s theories of equality or telling scatological jokes involving Ethan Allen.
It’s no surprise that Day-Lewis is mesmerizing, but it’s still somewhat shocking just how human, how normal he makes our 16th president.
“Lincoln,” though, isn’t just an exercise for the certain Oscar nominee. From top to bottom, the cast is extraordinary. In particular, Day-Lewis should be seeing a lot of Field and Tommy Lee Jones this awards season.
Field is a powerhouse as the unstable Mary Todd Lincoln, whether she’s weeping over a dead child, giving hell to the president’s political enemies or bemoaning that all anyone will remember of her was that she was crazy and ruined her husband’s happiness.
Jones, meanwhile, brings more than his usual gruffness to bewigged Republican firebrand Thaddeus Stevens. There are few greater cinematic pleasures than seeing Jones gather a full head of steam before blowing his top, in this case on a “fatuous nincompoop” of a colleague during what has become a rarity: genuine, clever, articulate debate on the House floor.
As wonderful as they are, though, it’s impossible to look away from James Spader’s W. N. Bilbo. Along with political operatives played by John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson, the attorney is dispatched by Secretary of State William Seward (David Straitharn) to horse trade with rival Democrats in exchange for their votes. It’s “Lincoln’s” descent into the muck of backroom, even subterranean politics, and Spader plays the scoundrel to the hilt with shady, disheveled glee.
They raise the bar so high, there’s barely room to mention the excellent work turned in by the likes of Hal Holbrook, Jared Harris, Walton Goggins and Bruce McGill.
The only real flaw is that Spielberg, in one of his un-Spielberg-iest films yet, doesn’t know when to quit. “Lincoln” would have been more powerful had it ended with the final House vote rather than soldiering on through its subject’s final months.
Those additional scenes are some of the least surprising in a movie that thrives on upending viewers’ assumptions.
You expect “Lincoln” to be important. You expect it to be first-rate. You just don’t expect it to be this much fun.
Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.