Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner of “Angels in America” fame wrote the new movie “Lincoln,” filling roughly 145 of its 149 minutes with dialogue.
In four scenes, maybe, characters are actually doing, rather than saying, something.
Yet Steven Spielberg, one of America's best directors, makes the movie come alive; watching it is like eavesdropping on history.
“Lincoln” isn't a full-life biopic about the 16th president. It focuses on the months between January 1865 and April 1865 at the beginning of Abraham Lincoln’s second term in office, when he is determined to pass the 13th amendment of the Constitution, which would abolish slavery (and thereby end the bloody Civil War between the Union and the Confederacy).
Like an episode of “The West Wing,” but more concentrated and detailed, the movie also introduces a colorful gallery of supporting players, who calculate how to get the vote passed and target potential swing voters with whatever deals (or threats) they can manage. These actions give “Lincoln” movement.
At the center is Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who gives the kind of command performance (often involving heavy research and heavy makeup) that wins awards. Day-Lewis expertly balances confidence, pain and weariness, creating a well-rounded human character.
Better still, Spielberg and his crew craft a realistic, impure, unkempt world filled with cigar smoke, scattered papers and empty teacups, with light coming only from fireplaces and windows. Characters seem as though they have never looked in the mirror; their hair is uneven and clothes are rumpled.
If President Woodrow Wilson once described the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” as “writing history with lightning,” in “Lincoln,” Spielberg does away with lightning and simply opens a door.
Even though viewers know the outcome, watching the politics play out in “Lincoln” is addictive: passion and logic clash, until, somehow, there’s a positive result.
As Thaddeus Stevens, the representative from Pennsylvania, Tommy Lee Jones has perhaps the showiest — and, occasionally, funniest — role. His speechifying about equality makes it sound legally enticing, if not exactly politically correct.
Perhaps the best part of “Lincoln” is that Kushner and Spielberg show human foibles rather than resorting to hero worship. A less wordy screenplay might have made complex issues too simple. As it stands, “Lincoln” is a rare, intelligent, adult work.