In age of irrational rhetoric, unfettered invective and nonsensical campaigns, “Lincoln” arrives with a reminder that our democratic process, unhinged though it often is, sometimes achieves pure good.
Besides a stirring story, this new window into our past also offers a Lincoln who belongs to the ages, in the form of Daniel Day-Lewis. Even surrounded as he is by other top-notch actors, it is hard to imagine this movie being half so effective with anyone else in the lead.
“Lincoln” gives the Civil War president the full Steven Spielberg treatment, with artistically placed candles, swelling music, close-ups framed against lit windows, noble character actors looking noble as they gaze into the future, or the camera.
But it also benefits from a Tony Kushner script that keeps its eyes on the prize — the passage of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery — even as it explores and enjoys the legislative sausage making before the achievement.
This is a movie, and a president, that has no problems with presenting patronage as it really is, as a payoff not just for fealty or venality but occasionally for bravery.
The opening reveals the stakes. Fare from any corridor of power, men in blue and gray brawl in a downpour, stumbling in knee-deep mud as they stab and slice and bite and punch and kill each other in brutal and kinetic action that recalls the director’s “Saving Private Ryan.”
This action, though, took place in 1864, and is being recalled by an African-American soldier, Pvt. Harold Green (Colman Domingo). He relates that in a previous encounter, the opposing confederates killed captured black federals. He recalls with satisfaction that in the mud at Jenkins’ Ferry, Tenn., “we made sure that we didn’t take any prisoners.”
The man he is telling the story to is the tall, cadaverous figure we instantly recognize as Lincoln, and Day-Lewis’ gaze, grave but warm, thoughtful but worn, is a miniature of the portrait he paints throughout the rest of the movie.
Other soldiers, though a bit awed, are jostling for Lincoln’s attention, but Green’s corporal, Ira Clark (David Oyelowo), presses the president about the inequalities in pay and rank between black and white troops. Lincoln acknowledges the problems, but suggests they keep working.
As Clark walks away, he quotes the end of the Gettysburg address back to Lincoln, “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Taken together, the two scenes make a great opening. Of course, openings have never been Spielberg’s problem. But if the rest of “Lincoln” seldom matches this force, it is movie that forces us to consider what government of the people — and in particular, of crotchety white males of a certain age — often is.
If Lincoln has been seized by a moral fervor to put his Emancipation Proclamation on a firm legal footing, he is also a man in the midst of competing political factions and parties, importuning citizens, and a struggling family life.
In a cast of remarkable depth and capacity, Sally Field stands out as a Mary Todd Lincoln who is a formidable political wife in an era when women were not supposed to be political or formidable.
Still ravaged by the death of their son Willie in 1862 — their second child to die — Field plays “Molly” Lincoln as a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, yet still able to face down prominent congressmen. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives another fine performance as Lincoln’s son Robert, furious at his parents for blocking his enlistment as the war grinds on.