"Compromise...or you risk it all," the president of the United States warns an ideologue in his own party. You haven't just walked into a campaign 2012 reality show. These words are from Steven Spielberg's grand yet intimate drama Lincoln. It's January 1865, and the president (Daniel Day-Lewis) is trying to garner support for the 13th Amendment, the abolition of slavery.
Releasing Lincoln at the end of a bitterly divisive election cycle is a savvy move. This fascinating exploration of realpolitik focuses on a few months in early 1865 - four years into the Civil War - as Lincoln makes the 13th Amendment the repository for the political capital from his re-election. To pass it, he must placate the radical wing of his own Republican Party, led by abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones); deal with conservative Republicans, who insist on trying to negotiate peace with the Confederacy; and convince some Democrats to defect from their party.
In his screenplay, Tony Kushner keeps the dialogue lively as he identifies the key players and their respective positions. He steers us through the work of the three political fixers (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) Lincoln hires to offer government jobs to lame-duck Democrats as an incentive to support the amendment. He shows Lincoln's own cabinet arguing that ending the Civil War is more important than abolishing slavery. In one terrific scene, Stevens browbeats a Democrat into siding with the president. The nuts-and-bolts work of politics has rarely been presented as such a combination of filth and nobility.
At the center of it all is Lincoln himself, portrayed magnificently by Day-Lewis. The script gives Lincoln a propensity for sharing folksy anecdotes and associating with average citizens, making it clear how his interpersonal skills helped him nudge others toward his goals. The movie is also a fascinating case study in "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," as we see Lincoln struggle with ethically questionable decisions that must be made for the greater good. These moments should give pause to viewers on both sides of the political spectrum.
Lincoln is riveting nearly every moment Day-Lewis is on screen, with one exception: when the movie focuses on the president's relationships with his emotionally fragile wife (Sally Field) and his oldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). These subplots are not nearly as compelling as the story behind the political maneuvering, and some border on melodrama.
Though Lincoln is a complex, layered portrait of the 16th president, it's far from an act of hero worship. Instead, it's an epic celebration of pragmatism that dares us to see compromise as a thing of beauty.