More often than not, ruining the end of a film will ruin the reason to watch it. But in “Lincoln,” the surprise is certainly not in the ending — it’s in everything that takes place before it. There’s much more to the life of the sixteenth President of the United States than what’s written in American history textbooks. It’s time to get “honest” about Abe.
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Steven Spielberg (“War Horse”) directs this poignant period piece that takes place at the end of the Civil War, as Lincoln strives for a peace treaty and the abolishment of slavery. The film opens with a muddy battle of bayonettes and boots, gruesome close-ups of spearing and stomping on faces in the murky water. But Spielberg takes the viewer behind the scenes of the government rather than enemy lines with two riveting, interwoven storylines: Lincoln’s perspective as both a family man and commander-in-chief, and the House of Representatives as it debates the fervently contested Thirteenth Amendment.
Spielberg recreates the era using simple cinematography, so the film functions more like a documentary than a Hollywood production. But his most impressive achievement — proving why he’s one of the best at his craft — is doing the impossible: He portrays politicians as human.
Despite power and reverence, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis, “Nine”) is also a tall man in a top hat who lies on the floor with his youngest son, helps his wife (Sally Field, “The Amazing Spider-Man”) out of her corset and forbids his eldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Looper”) to enlist in the Union army. Coated in affability, he shares touching, personal, thought-provoking anecdotes with everyone from his cabinet to Negro soldiers — awesome examples of the inventive dialogue by Tony Kushner (“Munich”), partially adapted from the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Dorris Kearns Goodwin. At one point, the Union battle strategist runs out of the room screaming because he just can’t handle yet another “Lincoln Lesson.”
Day-Lewis’s performance is like a cinematic resurrection. He doesn’t act like Lincoln — he is Lincoln.
But it’s not just Lincoln carrying the film — he’s flanked by an uncensored mob of unruly politicians. If government proceedings today were anything like this, C-SPAN could televise pay-per-view specials and make a killing. These stately scholars behave like schoolyard boys as they spend as much time tossing crass insults and embarrassing epithets around the room as they do productively debating.
Tommy Lee Jones (“Emperor”) as the radical Republican congressional leader is naturally one of the worst offenders. Comedy continues when the secretary of state (David Straitharn, “The Bourne Legacy”) recruits three men to bribe Democrats to support the bill. James Spader (“Shorts”) plays ringleader as the conniving trio both succeeds and fails in a series of hilarious scenes. Jokes and plot thicken as Democrats must now combat their own kind who have hopped the fence. The brimming buffoonery in the narrative provides refreshing relief from the gravity of the overarching subject matter.
The best film is the kind that ends way too soon, and when this one does come to a close, Lincoln’s death consumes less than five minutes of screen time. The brilliance of “Lincoln” is in the journey, not the destination. It sets itself apart from the average war biopic by showcasing the human elements of its characters. A soldier is also a son, a politician is also a husband and a president is also a father. There’s a lot more to people than their title and what they do — it’s far more important, and cinematically gripping, to manifest who they are.
Correction appended: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Dorris Kearns Goodwin and Donna Kearns Goodwin.