I watched Steven Spielberg's Lincoln unburdened by questions about its historical and biographical accuracy. However, I am familiar enough with the movies' idea of Lincoln-as-American-cinema — or American-cinema-as-Lincoln — put forth in the films of great directors like D.W. Griffith and John Ford. Spielberg's treatment of that idea is, for the most part, a dignified success. The best, and worst, thing I can say about his new film is that I hope it will displace Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in high school civics classrooms.
Although Lincoln generates some tension in its treatment of the backstory behind the ratification of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, it's hardly a suspenseful yarn. It's more fascinating and successful as a bold, blocky, cluttered film about both the imagination necessary for political change and the imaginative life of a great leader.
Of course, Lincoln is played by Daniel Day-Lewis; what other actor would any serious director choose to embody and explore pre-20th century American male archetypes? The first time Day-Lewis appears as Lincoln, he looks and movies like a Hall of Presidents robot made flesh and blood. But it quickly becomes clear that this Lincoln is different.
This Lincoln inhabits a world of storytelling and metaphor. This Lincoln quotes Hamlet and Henry IV and paraphrases Roman dramatist Terence's idea that "nothing human is alien to me" in casual conversation. This Lincoln knows when and how to tell a good story when he has to. (My favorite part of the whole film might be Day-Lewis sighing, "I love that story," after he delivers the punch line to a long, bawdy Ethan Allen anecdote.) This Lincoln debates fate and classical mathematics with telegram officers. This Lincoln slaps his oldest son for wanting to enlist in the Union Army. In short, this Lincoln is enormously charming — charming enough to inspire awe and fear when he reminds his subordinates that he's "clothed in immense power."
Interestingly, Lincoln's foil in the film is not some racist Democrat opposed to the end of slavery; it's the Radical Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). Jones' acid tongue and royal contempt for his peers are a perfect contrast to Lincoln's crafty homespun pragmatism, and the scene in which Stevens simultaneously compromises himself while flaying his detractors on the floor of the House of Representatives is one of the movie's most memorable.
Again, Lincoln is pretty good, even though it reeks of prestige and importance. Yet Spielberg's visual skill seems constrained by some of the film's more theatrical elements, such as screenwriter Tony Kushner's superb script, which is loaded with ringing speeches and tasty confrontations. But Spielberg sneaks in a few moments of clever, moving poetry. In one wry associative moment, Spielberg cuts from the roll-call vote on the 13th Amendment to Lincoln, youngest son in his lap, perusing a book about insects.
There's another passage when Lincoln, on horseback, views the devastation on a battlefield while the Stars and Bars cross flags with the Stars and Stripes. And, lest anyone forget, every time Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) pulls on his cigar, moviegoers everywhere are reminded of a good cinematographer's pleasure in shooting tobacco smoke against natural light.