'Lincoln': Glory, glory, hallelujah | 4 stars

History comes to astonishing life in a vivid portrait of a president.

11/15/2012 1:00 PM

05/16/2014 8:18 PM

Daniel Day-Lewis is so good in “Lincoln” he makes a $5 bill look phony.

He plays Honest Abe as a bemused stranger, a codger in the corner of the room, a reader, a writer, a thinker, a storyteller, a politician weighed down with the fate of an entire system of government and a father struggling with unbearable grief.

It’s a remarkable portrayal that turns the nearly mythical figure into a man.

Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (“Angels in America,” “Munich”) focus on the last few months of Lincoln’s life, as the 16th president works to persuade the House of Representatives to catch up to the Senate and pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery.

Lincoln and his allies must work quickly before the Civil War ends. Otherwise, trying to get the amendment through a Congress with newly re-admitted Southern states could mean outright defeat.

The history is known (spoiler alert: it passes). How it happened may be debatable. Lincoln’s words and actions are well-chronicled. But how he moved, how he sounded, his mannerisms remain murky for our visual and well-documented 21st century culture. “Lincoln” makes the history live and breathe.

The film begins with a short but savage mudhole battle in Arkansas. Cut to a quiet night scene. Two black soldiers stand in the rain, talking to a man who’s keeping dry under an overhang. They trade stories about their hair and the worth of a good barber. The unseen man’s voice is high, reedy, unstatesmanlike. Finally we see who is speaking: the president of the United States.

It’s an elegant solution to the problem of Lincoln’s voice. Hearing him before seeing him prepares the viewer to understand that Lincoln didn’t have an orator’s booming voice.

It also creates another problem: The scene probably never happened (see story on D1).

Historians will debate the truthiness of Spielberg’s biopic for ages (or at least through the Oscar season), but events are compressed, edited and occasionally just made up to generally get at a larger truth.

Soon after the rainy conversation, for example, Lincoln goes to his young son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), who has fallen asleep by the fire. The president lies down on the floor, face-to-face with his son. When the boy stirs, Lincoln scoops him up and gives him a piggyback ride to his bedroom. As they leave the hearth, Tad says of his dead brother, “I miss Willie.”

“I do, too, son,” Lincoln says. “I do, too.”

The poignant scene doesn’t have to be played out accurately, beat by beat, to be true. What matters is it feels real.

Day-Lewis is the main reason it all works. Seeing him dodder about, stoking the fireplace with a shawl across his shoulders or stooping his large frame to better hear a shorter person sets up the enormity of Lincoln’s task.

Day-Lewis is surrounded by many recognizable and semi-recognizable actors giving fine performances. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.

“Mad Men” actor Jared Harris plays Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. David Strathairn is Secretary of State William Seward. Jackie Earle Haley is the Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens. James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson turn up as the “gang of three,” Seward’s underhanded lobby.

Standing out among that crowd of home-run hitters is Tommy Lee Jones as bewigged abolitionist Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens, and Sally Field as the heartbreaking first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln.

“Lincoln” has been criticized as having stilted dialogue, and it’s true that lines sometimes sound as if they were written and not said (though some of them are apparently direct quotes).

Eldest son Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tells his parents he wants to enlist in the Army, and Mary warns the president that if he fails to get the amendment passed and another son dies before the war ends, “Woe unto you, sir. You will answer to me.”

And when Stevens fights back against opponents of the 13th Amendment, among them Ohio Rep. George H. Pendleton, he rails: “How can I hold that all men are created equal? When here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior? Endowed by their maker with dim wits impermeable to reason. With cold pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood? You are more reptile than man, George. So low and flat, that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.”

It’s a powerful — and funny — moment, made more so when you consider most films have maybe one or two memorable lines. Kushner’s script is full of difficult dialogue, and it is a welcome change.

“Lincoln” is a return to form for Spielberg, an improvement over last year’s maudlin “War Horse,” the befuddling “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and the impenetrable “Munich.” The film is a sure bet for several technical as well as creative Oscar nominations. Its characters are living at the height of 1865 American society, but to us they look like they’re camping off the grid. Everything is so muddy.

Unworthy, however, is John Williams’ heavy-handed score. Banjos playing as characters run and woodwinds backing patriotic speeches only take us out of the moment.

But it’s Day-Lewis’ show. He gets to the heart of Lincoln by reinforcing our notions of the man’s spirit while subverting many of our preconceptions.

In the film’s most touching scene, Lincoln and his wife have a screaming match over Robert’s enlistment, the subtext of which is the death of Willie. Lincoln is turned away from her, arms crossed and wrapped tight. The man is racked with sorrow but unable to express it, either as a 19th century man or a leader whose country desperately needs him to be more than human. It’s almost too much for the president, and Day-Lewis exudes grief before a single word is said.

“Lincoln” is a brilliant portrait. The film gives life to a man we know only as a statue, a head on a mountain and a profile on a penny.

WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING

• Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice

: “The film is as steeped in suspense as many of Steven Spielberg’s adventure movies, but here it’s never the threat of violence working your nerves, at least not until the end when Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln set out to be patrons of the arts. And the economy and clarity with which Spielberg establishes the competing interests in the film’s protracted political wrangling has no precedent in his filmography. ‘Lincoln’ is the work of a different director, one truly fascinated by why his subjects do what they do, one who invests each moment with the artistry he has often reserved for set pieces.”

• Pete Vonder Haar, The Huffington Post

: “It’s intense, detailed stuff, and I honestly don’t know how audiences are going to respond to what is essentially 2.5 hours of speechifying bookended by brief scenes of wartime atrocity.”

• Chris Sawin, Examiner.com

: “If ‘Lincoln’ wasn’t so long-winded, it could be credited with Spielberg steering himself back toward his former glory.”

• Richard Roeper, RichardRoeper.com

: “A richly detailed interpretation of all the backroom deals, political horse-trading and compromises Lincoln and his allies had to make to put an end to slavery in America. There are times when you think this would have worked better as a 10-part miniseries than a theatrical release.”

IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY

• “Angels in America.”

Screenwriter Tony Kushner wrote this play about the AIDS crisis, which was turned into an Emmy-winning HBO miniseries.

• “A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” The film was based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s sweeping biography of the 16th president and the men who ran against him — and later worked for him. Also try “Rise to Greatness,”

by Kansas City author David Von Drehle.

• “Songs of the Civil War,” by various artists. This 1991 collection gathers songs of and about the period by artists as varied as Waylon Jennings, Hoyt Axton, John Hartford and Kathy Mattea. It’s available on Spotify.

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