The saying goes, "The making of laws like the making of sausages, is not a pretty sight." But Daniel Day-Lewis's Abraham Lincoln is no unsightly sausage-maker, and Lincoln is an enthralling watch.
The two-and-a-half hour film zeros in on the last few months of the 16th president's life. The four-year-old Civil War rages on, but coming off a second-term victory, the widely-admired Lincoln has a little political capital to spend before his lame-duck Congress retires in the spring. Against the advice of his colleagues and to the suspicions of even the abolitionists, Lincoln throws himself into passing a constitutional amendment forever outlawing slavery— a gamble that could either end or extend an already protracted war.
The road to the 13th Amendment is lined with the bribing of elected officials, House floor name-calling, and even a Lincolnian "lawyer's dodge" to finally bring the measure to a vote. But Honest Abe rises above the sausage-making. As radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens puts it at the end of the film, the amendment could only be passed by "corruption aided and abetted by the purest man in America"—the film proves principle and pragmatism can and should work together hand-in-hand. Lincoln and his "Team of Rivals" (the title of the book the movie is based) must jump through hoops at times quite comical, but that does not take way from the seriousness of the situation at hand. The film keenly limits bloody, battlefield violence—most of the action is contained in back room dealings—rather revealing the grave stakes in places unexpected of a Civil War epic.
If the depravity of war and the treachery of politics are not enough for President Lincoln, his family piles on extra pressure: His oldest son insists on joining the army, his wife blames him for the tragic death of their middle child, and his youngest son has taken an obsession to pictures of slaves. Lincoln is holding together both a broken nation and a broken family.
Lincoln features plenty of outstanding supporting performances, with Sally Field as the melodramatic Mary Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as the irascible Stevens, and James Spader as a wily operative brought in to woo lawmakers to the president's side. But this is Day-Lewis's show. The burden of Lincoln's situation physically weighs on him — Day-Lewis ages in front of the camera every time Lincoln runs into another obstacle or disappointment. Lincoln's awkwardly tall height is most evident when Day-Lewis shrinks it — hunching humbly when asking his politically enemies for help, or curling up to his sleeping child or weeping wife. But just as quickly can Day-Lewis's Lincoln grow and spring to life, engaging his various audiences — black soldiers, needy constituents, troublesome politicians — in animated parables, passionate monologues, and stirring speeches.
Aside from a few instances of a hokey, cliched score (think wistful flutes and meandering piano), Steven Spielberg's steady direction steers Lincoln away from being too adulatory or sentimental. The film benefits from Tony Kushner's snappy script; his dialogue makes 19th century language and cadence compelling and witty for a 21st century audience.
Though the lessons Spielberg would like us to learn in our gridlocked times are obvious — one of the film's most courageous moments comes when a character tempers his own beliefs for the sake of compromise — that's not to say they're unwelcome. And a president as great as Lincoln deserves nothing less than a film of this grandeur.
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Tierney Sneed is associate editor of U.S. News Opinion. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.