Let’s be honest: When Steven Spielberg makes a historical epic, they’re often bad. And not just, “Oh, he missed by that much” bad, but bad. War Horse: Treacly. Insipid. Casually cruel to children and animals. Munich: Unwatchable and more than a little cruel (to its characters and the audience). Empire of the Sun: Nostalgia as drama. The Color Purple: Abuse through a Disney lens. Amistad: Matthew McConaughey as a guy from New Haven, Conn.
Then, there’s Schindler’s List, which is compelling, wrenching and masterful until it gets to the girl in the red coat, and then it’s ruined by that saccharine image. Saving Private Ryan is that rarest of Spielberg historical epics: It works, and well, and makes one forget its more uninspired moments (namely, anything actually featuring Pvt. Ryan).
In other words, Spielberg has a tone problem, and is better suited to telling stories about aliens and guys with whips than he is anything else. But he keeps trying.
His latest effort is Lincoln, and as Spielberg historicals go, it’s not bad. Most of it is even quite good. Though there are some mistakes—casting Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, who goes back and forth from right-on-the-money to terrifically overwrought, à la Steel Magnolias; casting Bruce McGill, whose ability to get a job is still a mystery; letting historical figures off the hook for voting against the 13th Amendment—overall, it’s gripping stuff.
Lincoln focuses on a narrow section of history, namely the time President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) spent in January 1865 trying to add the 13th Amendment to the Constitution—to be clear, the amendment that permanently abolishes slavery in the US—voted on (in the affirmative) by a lame-duck House of Representatives filled with angry Democrats. The choice to tell that story alone is pretty gutsy: Who would dare tackle a movie that is, by and large, about old white men arguing?
Spielberg, who can do what he wants. Of course, this is politics by arm-twisting and underhanded promises—or business as usual. Lincoln, through his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), quietly hires three lobbyists (played with fun and borderline silly gusto by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) to do the glad-handing needed to win support for the amendment.
We know how this story ends, so Spielberg has taken a risk simply by telling it. He succeeds, and is aided immeasurably by Day-Lewis. His Lincoln is gentle, keen to tell a story, and almost preternaturally intelligent. In fact, Lincoln is so gentle and patient, he seems at times avuncular; we want to hug him (as many characters in the movie seem to want to do). At other times, his penchant for storytelling at odd moments feels more suited to Old Man Jenkins-who-lives-down-the-road than it does to the president of the United States. But if he wants to drawl off into a story, why not let him?
Also on Lincoln’s docket is his crumbling family. He and Mary are still haunted by the death of their son William in 1862 (in fact, throughout the movie, Lincoln often looks haunted). In one of many excellent scenes, he and Mary argue about William, and they both look worn out; they’ve had this altercation before. In another scene, Lincoln and his oldest son, Robert (an appropriately serious Joseph Gordon-Levitt), nearly get into a brawl—as much as your kindly uncle can—over Robert’s desire to join the Union army. It’s little wonder Lincoln often appears so hunched, as if his wiry frame may give under the enormous strain of his life.
There are few scenes of blue and gray armies fighting, but the little shown is effective and brutal (two soldiers drowning the enemy in a muddy battlefield, for example), and the war is always in the background, eating away at Lincoln: one more thing that makes him seem so tired. Ultimately, Lincoln is a tribute to the man that could have been cloying and sentimental (though there is some of that), but Spielberg keeps those tendencies in check and delivers a movie that’s highly entertaining.
Follow David Riedel @ThaRid