Lincoln is funny. Let's start with that.
It is not the only movie this year that is ostensibly a drama but quite pleasantly blindsided me with its numerous moments of humor. Perhaps not so coincidentally, both it and Argo -- the other film to which I'm referring -- figure to be major factors at the Academy Awards next February.
This is not to say that Lincoln is in any way an unserious movie; quite the opposite, it has plenty to say about the scars left by the Civil War -- ones still felt today -- about the courage and foresight showed by the Abraham Lincoln throughout his presidency, and about his graft and sheer determination in pushing through the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution before the return of the Southern states to the Union could threaten the final abolition of slavery. You can glean your own modern-day application of the film's themes too if you wish, though I suspect, if you let them, your political leanings will color the exact message you choose to take from it. (My suggestion: focus on the Lincoln's leadership, rather than the relative merits of striking bargains rooted in realpolitik vs. sticking to your core principles, and never, ever conflate this with the "fiscal cliff" or any other present day issue we're facing.)
But this is to say that a few chuckles are welcome when you're pondering such dense, deep and wide-ranging themes.
Lincoln, as you probably well know by now (especially if, like me, you ride the Washington D.C. Metro every day and are thus inundated with posters and promotional materials in every station), is a partial adaptation of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-selling book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It is set in the final months of the Civil War and our 16th President's life and is focused principally on the great political capital he spends to engineer the passing of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives, despite the reticence of a coalition of lame-duck Democratic and conservative Republican congressmen who are leery of the implications of such a final political act.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln here and Steven Spielberg is the director. Those two facts alone are enough to make this one of the best films of the year. One of the best supporting casts I have ever seen makes for quite the cherry on top. Sally Field plays the mildly unhinged Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones stars as Thaddeus Stevens, the powerful congressman pushing for more legal rights for the freed slaves than even Lincoln wants to at this particular stage, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Lincoln's son Robert, John Hawkes and James Spader are two of the political operatives unleashed by Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), to help secure the votes needed to pass the amendment via cushy government appointments for the Democrats willing to desert their party's line. I could go on. Suffice it to say, the talent on hand is so staggering that it's a challenge to find an unrecognizable face or a lousy actor even among those with just a few minutes of screen time.
And yet even with all those known quantities, it is still Day-Lewis who steals almost every scene. His reputation for method acting has almost become a punch line, but that I guess is because it's one of those funny-because-it's true things. He is, as we're not reminded often enough, our greatest living actor -- so good as such an iconic figure in American history that I had to keep reminding myself that this was an actor playing Abraham Lincoln, not the lanky, Illinois statesman himself. This is an unestimably difficult feat because it's hard to not turn the guy on our pennies into a caricature and because I have no frame of reference with which to be so convinced that he is Lincoln. There are, after all, no grainy audio or video tapes of his speeches floating around on YouTube to help inform my imagination of what he sounded like, what his mannerisms might have been.
I have only one small complaint. I felt that Lincoln could have been just a little leaner. Day-Lewis' Lincoln loves telling stories to his advisers and underlings, his wife and his son, but I could have done without one or two of them. There were plenty of those trademark Spielberg moments of wonder that make him one of this generation's great directors -- moments where the characters realize they are making or witnessing something of great historical import -- but I could have done without one or two of them as well. (Since you might wonder about this when you see the movie, I would not, on the other hand, have ended things before the scene where Lincoln heads off to Ford's Theater on the night he is assassinated; I thought it was a powerful way to convey the emotional devastation of his untimely loss.)
Anyway, by small complaints, I guess I really mean microscopic. This is a rich, textured and dignified character study of one of the greatest figures in American history delivered by our greatest working actor and one of our greatest directors. Even within those parameters, Lincoln lives up to its almost impossibly high expectations and then some.