Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln arrives in theaters this week, conveniently sandwiched between Election Day and Veterans Day, on a wave of critical accolades. I’m not convinced that it’s a masterpiece—much of it is too staid, and it could use more of Spielberg’s humor. (His recent work has made me nostalgic for what we might call his “early, funny” period, which gave us Close Encounters, Jaws, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark, all of which thrillingly blend spectacle, action, and comedy.) In turning to figures like John Ford for inspiration—and the sentimental John Ford of How Green Was My Valley, not the bitter, cynical John Ford of The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—Spielberg has gotten soft, and his films somewhat paunchy. It’s not just that they’re corny or sweet or earnest, because the early films were that way too. The difference is that the early films were driven by the relentless energy of a boy filmmaker. “You look like you’ve aged ten years since January,” Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) tells Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) at the end of the film, after the latter has spent months laboring to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. The same could be said of Spielberg, whose films don’t move as quick as they used to.
Luckily, Spielberg has found a great collaborator in Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who wrote the screenplay for Lincoln, as well as for Spielberg’s last great film, Munich (2005). Kushner is exactly the kind of writer Spielberg needs. His dialogue is sharp and shows intelligence, and it’s not bogged down with platitudes or lines you feel you’ve heard in movies a hundred times before. It’s an exceptionally smart script, and it helps to counter Spielberg’s tendency to get lost in a lot of dewy-eyed kitsch. The film, which spans the final months of the Civil War (and ends with a tagged-on-feeling scene of Lincoln’s death, lit like a religious painting), is largely made up of scenes of Lincoln and his cabinet members strategizing about how to sell the amendment, which would declare slavery unconstitutional, to racist Democratic senators opposed to the idea of granting citizenship to black Americans. (One major flaw in Kushner’s screenplay: it’s woefully inadequate in its handling of black characters, who are more or less relegated to the sidelines. I kept wanting to yell at the film in reference to Elizabeth Keckley, "Give her more to say!" She spends most of the film a silent onlooker.) As such, Lincoln is largely a political procedural, and a talky one at that; but it’s mostly great talk, thanks to Kushner.
Thanks must also go to a stellar cast, headed by the fine Daniel Day-Lewis, who channels the aura, the star quality, of a larger-than-life figure like Lincoln. On the whole, it’s a lighter, quieter, funnier performance than one might expect (he does have one great aria three-quarters of the way through, when he loses his temper with his cabinet’s hand-wringing). The real standout in the cast is Sally Field as a haunted, slightly hysterical but iron-willed Mrs. Lincoln; perhaps because hers is a supporting role and less burdened with the mantle of historical importance, she’s allowed to be more of a character. It’s enough to make you wonder where she’s been this last decade, and how many great performances of hers we’ve missed out on.