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Photo Credit: David James; SMPSP

Our Greatest President, played by our Greatest Actor under the guidance of our Greatest Director—the weight of legend has been hanging over Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln like a heavy cloud ever since the project was announced. 

I know you’re probably expecting a solemn history lesson—one of those starchy slogs made mainly for Oscar consideration and screenings in classrooms while bored students catch a nap. Hell, Spielberg tried this kind of thing once before with Amistad, and I was actually shushed in the theater for laughing out loud at the bloated self-importance.

You’ll find none of that here.

Lincoln is a remarkable film for many reasons, but first and foremost, it’s nimble-footed, crowd-pleasing entertainment. The film is funny. Lincoln himself is really funny. Tasked with dramatizing some of the most significant moments of the 19th century, Spielberg shoots the picture as a bustling ensemble comedy. There’s little pageantry here, just a lot of deeply flawed, quicksilver wits trying to muddle their way through the course of American history. A lot of the time, Lincoln feels like a Robert Altman movie, which is just about the highest compliment I can pay these days.

How do you humanize a guy whose face is on money? Daniel Day-Lewis sneaks up underneath the role, wearing the stovepipe hat and chin beard not as iconic emblems, but as the affectations of a jack-legged, folksy country lawyer who just so happens to be the smartest guy in the room. There’s nothing stentorian about his proclamations, either. This Lincoln conceals his sermons within oddball anecdotes and toilet humor.

Yet the whole time his eyes are alight, reading the situation and taking measure
of opponents who’ll invariably underestimate him. It’s one of Day-Lewis’ least showy performances, sly and internalized with a gentle temperament that’s impossibly endearing. Five minutes into this movie, I wanted Abraham Lincoln to be my new best friend.

Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner wisely avoid the cradle-to-grave structure that plagues most Hollywood biopics. Working in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, they zero in on the passage on the 13th Amendment and allow Lincoln’s biographical details to slowly develop in the background. (I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to see a film like this that didn’t presume to “solve” the character with a cheapjack, Freudian scene from his childhood before the opening credits.)

For all intents and purposes a congressional procedural, Lincoln begins in the waning days of the Civil War. The film follows our commander-in-chief as he attempts to ram the constitutional amendment banning slavery through a hostile House of Representatives by taking advantage of a few lame ducks who are about to be looking for new jobs.

Humorously acknowledging that his Emancipation Proclamation just might’ve been slightly illegal, Honest Abe sees that the clock is now ticking on getting abolition passed into actual law, and the thrill of Lincoln is watching this cunning old dog cajole and manipulate an ideologically divided, often bumbling government.

Kushner’s screenplay is magnificent, containing grand flights of often off-color oratory. Indeed, the picture is nearly stolen outright by Tommy Lee Jones as die-hard abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, barking grandiloquent, barn-burning insults from beneath a wig that he himself acknowledges looks ludicrous. (This is what I like to imagine Tommy Lee Jones is like in real life.)

There’s also the matter of three cheerfully corrupt proto-lobbyist political fixers played to the hilt by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson. The trio is hired by David Strathairn’s exasperated Secretary of State William Seward in order to procure votes just barely within ethical means, and John Williams’ plaintive, piano-driven score shifts into a jaunty banjo whenever they appear onscreen. As the measure finally comes to a vote, the bruised idealism of Spader’s perpetually drunk character receives a glorious payoff.

Spielberg handles the passing of this constitutional amendment like the rousing climax of a misfit underdog sports movie, which probably explains why I enjoyed it
so much.

Of course, there’s much more to Lincoln than political farce. We all know how this story ends, and the human cost of the Civil War looms large in the background. Spielberg’s off-handed elegance portends future tragedy within the frames, but from moment to moment this picture is loosey-goosey and full of life. Spry and chaotic, Lincoln is one of the best films of the year.

Lincoln 

 Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and James Spader. Screenplay by Tony Kushner. Directed by Steven Spielberg. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square and in the suburbs.