A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
I've rarely been more aware than during Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" that Abraham Lincoln was a plain-spoken, practical, down-to-earth man from the farmlands of Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. He had less than a year of formal education and taught himself through his hungry reading of great books. I still recall from a childhood book the image of him taking a piece of charcoal and working out mathematics by writing on the back of a shovel.
Lincoln lacked social polish but he had great intelligence and knowledge of human nature. The hallmark of the man, performed so powerfully by Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln," is calm self-confidence, patience and a willingness to play politics in a realistic way. The film focuses on the final months of Lincoln's life, including the passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery, the surrender of the Confederacy and his assassination. Rarely has a film attended more carefully to the details of politics.
Lincoln believed slavery was immoral, but he also considered the 13th Amendment a masterstroke in cutting away the financial foundations of the Confederacy. In the film, the passage of the amendment is guided by William Seward (David Strathairn), his secretary of state, and by Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the most powerful abolitionist in the House. Neither these nor any other performances in the film depend on self-conscious histrionics; Jones in particular portrays a crafty codger with some secret hiding places in his heart.
The capital city of Washington is portrayed here as roughshod gathering of politicians on the make. The images by Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's frequent cinematographer, use earth tones and muted indoor lighting. The White House is less a temple of state than a gathering place for wheelers and dealers. This ambience reflects the descriptions in Gore Vidal's historical novel "Lincoln," although the political and personal details in Tony Kushner's concise, revealing dialogue is based on "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book is well-titled. This is a film not about an icon of history, but about a president who was scorned by some of his political opponents as just a hayseed from the backwoods.