The MVP of “Lincoln” is screenwriter Tony Kushner. The writer of “Angels in America” crafts something miraculous in his script for “Lincoln,” which is that he makes politics seem fun. In a fog of election fatigue, this movie is the clear light shining through, and it all starts with Kushner’s words.
Ripe with humor, “Lincoln” provides great personality and great dialogue to all of its characters and in fact runs on this dialogue-driven vigor for most of its running time. Kushner’s screenplay provides director Steven Spielberg with a great story to direct (the two previously collaborated on “Munich”), but even more so Kushner provides actor Daniel Day-Lewis with his umpteenth “role of a lifetime.”
Of course, this could be said about “There Will Be Blood” or “My Left Foot” or any other role that Day-Lewis has knocked completely out of the park, which is to say most of them. With an extreme dedication to detail of performance, Day-Lewis plays our 16th American President as a grandfather-type, constantly offering up amusing anecdotes and insightful wisdom. I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if at one point Lincoln slapped his knee and asked a member of Senate to sit on his lap.
And Day-Lewis’s sheer absorption into this role is something to be marveled at. The look we have only seen pictures of, the acts we have only read about, the voice that we have never heard—Day-Lewis brings Lincoln to life straight out of the history books. It has Oscar written all over it.
But the great performances don’t stop with Day-Lewis. Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most powerful members of Congress at the time, with a biting one-two combo of comically caustic one-liners and riotous reaction shots. The triad of James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson as Lincoln lobbyists is something to marvel at (especially Spader, who briefly offers some of the movie’s funniest lines). And Joseph Gordon-Levitt has momentary shine as Lincoln’s eldest son Robert.
The only weak link in the chain is Sally Field as first lady Mary Todd Lincoln (nicknamed Molly). If anything, her character feels as if she exists solely for the purpose of providing the movie with stagey drama, with “Lincoln’s” biggest weakness being that it sometimes feels very much like a play on screen. And Field’s performance doesn’t lessen the theatrics as her bloated, over-the-top portrayal of Molly Lincoln is like a competition between the actress and her costumes to determine who or what is the loudest.
Brilliant or not-so-brilliant performances aside, this is still Kushner’s baby seen through a Spielbergian vision. “Lincoln” is a serious, touching, funny character comedy that just so happens to be a historical biopic as well. The scenes of congress debating the emancipation of slaves, the film’s main focus on Lincoln’s presidency, make politics seems interesting, fair, but most of all easy to understand. It only adds to “Lincoln’s” success that these historically enriched portrayals are also infused with the energy of a screwball comedy, with dialogue that flies back and forth with fiery dynamism.
Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is a historical epic appropriate to our times, offering a tender look at a challenged leader who fought for change despite all odds. And how that one man—through his determination, morality, and political influence—led the country into a decision that would change the course of history forever.
Greg Vellante is a film critic for The Eagle Tribune.