Almost everything about Lincoln is good—and, in many aspects, far better than good—save its most notable element. Steven Spielberg is the most successful, wealthiest, and most garlanded motion-picture director in the history of cinema, and he can make any film he wants. Only Spielberg could have gotten a lavish biographical portrait of Abraham Lincoln produced for the big screen in the first place. Yet his staging of the proceedings is—there is no other word for it—lame. The pacing and framing and handling of the material are so tedious, flat, and stiff that they do real damage to what is otherwise one of the best and most serious American movies in years.
With regard to hiring others, Spielberg did a masterful job. The settings and costuming and makeup are wondrous and exacting. Even the beards are spectacular—which is no small feat, as anyone who spent hours being distracted by the fake hair adorning the faces of Jeff Daniels and Tom Berenger in Ronald F. Maxwell’s comparable Civil War pageant Gettysburg can attest.
Spielberg engaged Tony Kushner to write the screenplay, an odd choice given Kushner’s obsession with tiny distinctions in postwar left-wing ideology and hysterically Manichean rendering of present-day American political differences. But what emerged from Kushner’s pen is an uncommonly elegant and highly sophisticated screenplay. Lincoln is a drawing-room political drama about the machinations in Washington in late 1864 and early 1865 that attended Lincoln’s insistence on a vote in the House of Representatives to ratify the 13th Amendment. Even though the result is a foregone conclusion, Kushner manages to create fascinating conflicts and no small amount of tension in the maneuvering.
By focusing on a period of a few months as the war is ending, Kushner also gives us the first cinematic Lincoln in full maturity, having earned the unbounded affection of the American people in his reelection bid, readying what would prove to be the greatest piece of oratory in the English language, and thinking through the political and social ramifications of the reconstruction that would follow the war he was about to win at such terrible cost.
Spielberg also cast the movie perfectly, from the extras to Daniel Day-Lewis, who gives a performance so entirely transcendent that no adjectives of praise could possibly do it justice. Much has already been made of Day-Lewis’s inspired rendering of Lincoln’s tenor voice and refined backwoods accent; what has been little noted is how that unexpected voice causes the listener to hear Lincoln as he speaks, rather than getting lost in the uncanny Mathew Brady-ization of Day-Lewis’s face.
Even more surprising is the evidence that Day-Lewis, surely with the agreement of Kushner and Spielberg, chose to disdain the cheap and anachronistic theorizing about Lincoln’s clinical depression, or his torments as a supposedly closeted gay man. Like most people who have spent time in Lincoln’s historical company—save perverse intellectual miscreants like Edmund Wilson or philosophical neo-Confederates—these three men came away lost in admiration for one of history’s truly providential figures. They give full airing to his wit, his cleverness, his erudition, his kind manner, his immense patience, and his supernatural genius with words.
Day-Lewis’s own acting clinic is enhanced by the performers surrounding him, who show both the virtues of highly contained underplaying (David Strathairn, masterful as William Seward) and wildly entertaining scenery-chewing (Tommy Lee Jones as the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and James Spader as the political fixer W. N. Bilbo).
And yet, with all this bounty, Spielberg the director defaults to the kind of clumsy, wooden, overly deliberate approach found in the deadly 15-minute films one sees at history museums. The fluid camerawork and sense of dramatic urgency that Spielberg brought even to the glossy early scenes of Schindler’s List are entirely absent here. You can almost feel Spielberg’s relief when he can fall back on one of his patented schlocky “moments of wonder”—when he aims his camera upward at someone who is doing something noble—though at least, in this movie, he doesn’t use a fan to blow their hair backward, maybe because it might harm the fake beards.
So what happened? Spielberg first announced his intention to make a movie about Lincoln a decade ago, with Liam Neeson in the role. A few years later, Doris Kearns Goodwin published her mammoth bestseller Team of Rivals. Spielberg optioned it, and its penultimate chapter gave rise to the idea of centering the movie on the passage of the 13th Amendment, which only takes up a handful of pages in the book. The project stopped and started many times, Spielberg has said, before the elements came together.
The point is, Spielberg wanted to make a movie about Lincoln but had no idea what kind of movie to make—and it shows. Kushner gave him a crackling behind-the-scenes melodrama and Daniel Day-Lewis has given him one of the greatest performances ever recorded by a camera. And Spielberg took them and tried to stuff them inside a static diorama. That the movie works at all—and it does, often brilliantly—is a miracle in itself.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.