Lincoln showcases Steven Spielberg in homework mode. It’s the product of a drudge staying up all night hoping to pass his Oscar exam. But Lincoln won’t win any Oscars, and doesn’t deserve any. It’s a hopeless bore that, in an attempt to humanize an icon, turns him into a mere politician.
The film has a couple of very strong points but otherwise it’s a near total write-off and a waste of your time. Its best aspect is the wonderful lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the finest actors living and an artist who never ceases to challenge himself. Most actors would have been so excited by the prospect of playing Honest Abe that they would not have been able to resist playing the role as if all the angels of History were singing a backup chorus at every moment. But while he was living his life, Lincoln was just a man, one with a thin, wispy voice, a sadly nutty wife (Sally Field, who can’t resist hamming it up) and humble surroundings. By being so gentle and restrained, Day-Lewis makes you lean forward to hear every word and marvel at Lincoln’s judgment.
But Spielberg and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, otherwise flounder. Intent on avoiding cliche, Spielberg keeps swerving around the most dramatic moments. For instance, when the film begins (with a gritty battle scene of Union and Confederate soldiers wrestling in mud that unfortunately has a vaguely comical aspect), Lincoln has already given the Gettsyburg address, and we hear only portions of it recited from memory by the soldiers he is speaking to. This encounter with black Union troops seems forced and improbable, not least for the weirdly casual, even dismissive, way these ordinary soldiers treat their president. Wouldn’t they be even a little bit intimidated?
As the film goes on the big majority of it takes place in 1865, when Lincoln is persuaded that his Emancipation Proclamation had no legal basis because state laws can’t simply be overruled by executive fiat. To formally abolish slavery, Lincoln’s Republicans fight to pass the 13th Amendment during a lame-duck January session of Congress. The Republicans have won in a sweep, but not all of them want to outlaw slavery, so the party sets about rounding up votes from the institutionally racist Democratic party. Democrats who have lost their seats in the November election, Lincoln’s aides reason, no longer have any reason not to vote with their consciences and are free to do the right thing for its own sake.