Despite the big, bold title in LOST font and the noble silhouette on the movie poster, Lincoln isn’t really about our 16th president. But you don’t need a marketing degree to know that “SLAVERY” won’t get butts in the seats. In one of his more deft and understated productions to date, Steven Spielberg has created a brilliant historical drama—practically a political thriller, set in the halls of Congress—that follows the final negotiations to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery across a United States still in the throes of civil war. It’s chilling to watch a parade of white men (an ensemble cast featuring James Spader, Tommy Lee Jones, and half of HBO) debate the merits of black men, particularly in the same week we re-elected our nation’s first black president. Does 1865 feel like a long time ago, or too brief a period to admit that slavery existed on our shores?
But the engine of change was still Honest Abe, who’s back from the dead to play himself. Either that, or Daniel Day-Lewis has taken a page from the Book of Brando and has lost himself in the role, turning in what is easily one of the best performances of the year. With a sly smile, he is Lincoln the grandfatherly storyteller, building up long crescendos to punch lines while driving his clock-watching staffers mad. He is Lincoln the patient husband, sparring with Sally Field’s Mary Todd as two people who “knew each other perfectly” are wont to do. He is “the president of the United States, clothed in immense power,” prepared to extend a four-year war and its rising death toll so slaves could be free. He is not Lincoln the clinically depressed, the suicidal; skeletons stay buried under Spielberg’s watch.
Thanks to Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner—who bases the screenplay, in part, on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin—there are enough (but not too many) soaring speeches balanced by great moments of humor. Tommy Lee Jones, as the veteran Republican congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, steals every scene he’s in with century-bridging sarcasm. A man knocks on the door? Stevens’ reply: “It opens.” Lest you think the debates will sound dull (since, you know, we kind of know the outcome), remember that this film also captures the end of the Civil War and the end of the Lincoln himself. Those four months changed the course of our country, and Lincoln won’t let us forget it.
Lincoln is in select theaters (including Seattle) November 9, and nationwide November 16.