So when Day-Lewis first moves and speaks, it’s weirdly disquieting—he briefly reminded me of the animatronic Lyndon B. Johnson in Austin, Texas, who tells countrified jokes about drinking too much. But the initial shock of a reanimated Abe quickly fades, because Day-Lewis’ portrayal goes beyond physical likeness: His performance is brilliantly malleable, fully inhabited and deeply transfixing. Much has been said of the high and reedy voice he gives Lincoln, but historical accounts support his choice, and this distinctive vocal quality grants Day-Lewis’ words unexpected authority in a room of baritones. His performance is Oscar bait of the highest order.
The same can’t be said for all of Lincoln. True, Steven Spielberg’s stately drama is shrewd, balanced and impressively restrained. Both a wonky history lesson and a grand legal epic, it conveys surprising political intricacy and wisely dodges traditional biopic territory—this is no birth-to-death saga. But it’s also uneven and dogged by a waxy stuffiness, made worse by Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, which is so dark and blue it looks bruised. It’s winter in Washington, and apparently the sun don’t shine.
The film focuses on the first few months of 1865, during the fight to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery. After some cumbersome exposition, Lincoln turns in mesmerizing moments of political wheeling and dealing and backroom deals both dirty and suave, as well as blistering debates and brazen name-calling on the floor of the House of Representatives—it’s C-SPAN with waistcoats and muttonchops. As the radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones is a crusty, fiery presence in a terrible floppy wig (which is, in fact, similar to the terrible floppy wig the prematurely bald Stevens wore in real life).
But Lincoln derails in its domestic scenes. Mary Todd Lincoln may have been an unlikable harridan and a spendthrift first lady, but Sally Field’s hammy performance made me cringe. As Lincoln’s defiant oldest son, Joseph Gordon-Levitt feels shoehorned into a superfluous subplot. Though these sequences attempt to show Lincoln’s personal sacrifices and the strain of the presidency, they just feel forced and odd.
Talk trumps action in Lincoln, which plays more like a stage production than a Spielbergian spectacle. The poetic but monologue-heavy screenplay by Tony Kushner, who wrote Angels in America and co-authored Munich, contributes to this sense. Packed with crafty flurries of argument and Lincoln’s characteristic folksy adages and parables, it practically needs footnotes.
Some of the best dialogue, though, comes during the boisterous House vote on the 13th Amendment, which is also Lincoln’s most moving scene. Though we know the result, Spielberg and Kushner still manage to imbue the scene with moral complexity and gripping tension, as well as rowdy humor. Afterward, as the celebration spills onto the lawn, it’s both inspirational and disheartening: Could contemporary politicians overcome such partisan gridlock? In the wake of a messy campaign season and Barack Obama’s hard-fought re-election, one of Lincoln’s lines in the film resonates with particular gravity: “Say all we’ve done is shown the world that democracy isn’t chaos?” he asks. Nearly 150 years on, can we claim the same?
Critic’s Grade: B
SEE IT: Lincoln is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Fox Tower, Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Lloyd Center, Moreland, Bridgeport, Oak Grove, Lloyd Mall.