11/15/2012 12:06 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2013

Lincoln Pulls Back a Curtain on Past and Current Politics

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln takes on the last four months of the 16th president's life -- and it is nothing like you'd expect. Save the opening images of a Civil War battle, this is a political procedural where an ensemble cast carries equal importance to Abraham Lincoln himself.

Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is the moral center of the film, presented as a man of conviction and a great storyteller. He often charms the rooms and is revered, but to pass the 13th amendment abolishing slavery (of personal importance to Lincoln, that he has to use as a guise to end a Civil War that is already close to over), Lincoln cannot win people over by humanism; he needs politics.

Spielberg has cast a much wider net than Lincoln, the man, whose hero status cannot be extended much further. His Lincoln is about government, how it's changed in the U.S. and how it remains the same, all through the lens of one important piece of legislation.

Lincoln can't even be exposed as bleeding-heart liberalism, as the peek behind the 19th century political curtain reveals that Lincoln Republicans were all in favor of ending slavery, and the radical Democrats opposed it on the basis of states rights.

Watching the film so close after the election cycle of 2012 certainly creates a distorted funhouse mirror 1865 has to today, and indeed adds to the tension of watching the film with that parallel thought. States rights' involving the governed is still humanism vs. separatism, but the parties have switched from 1865 to today. While humanist Republicans freed the slaves, the first African-American president is across that aisle. While Democratic wins in 2012 were for humanistic evolution on marriages and immigration, states' citizens are petitioning to secede from the Union. The most important parallel from the film Lincoln in the 1865 setting to now, is the difficulty of getting votes in the House of Representatives -- a much larger body of voters, who once in a room together, sharing an aisle with heated glares to fall in line, are hard to persuade to leave the stance of their party.

How do you get someone to walk across the aisle for a vote? Lobbyists.

Lincoln goes against the advice of his secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), and uses his goodwill on the inevitable Confederate surrender to bring the amendment that has already passed in the Senate, but failed ratification in the House of Representatives, back to a vote in the House. By their count, they are 20 votes short of ratification. Twenty radicals need conversion. Seward assembles a team of convincers (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) who set out to persuade their rivals. First they go after the lame ducks, promising government positions for their conversion, then Lincoln himself has to ideologically convince the remainders.

In a deliciously dialogue-heavy film (written by award-winning playwright, Tony Kushner), conversational ability is the tactic. Day-Lewis is the warm and humble center, a man with convictions but not blinded by them. Lincoln relates his convictions in stories, or parables, which make him more approachable and a better listener. He asks numerous people what they think about the direction of these un-United States, from his telegraph writer (Adam Driver) to his African-American household helper (Gloria Reuben), who pointedly asks him how he feels about black people. In a beautiful moment that could have easily teetered into hero polishing the U.S. penny, Day-Lewis responds, "I don't know you any more than I know anyone. But I believe you deserve to expect what I expect. And I'll get used to you."

For Day-Lewis' strong, yet soft-voiced portrayal, the film needs a fire-breather, a rabble-rouser, someone who spews conviction in the face of Lincoln and Spielberg's restraint. For that, Tommy Lee Jones (as Thaddeus Stevens) is more than game. He gets great speeches, he enlivens a morose House, and he knows when to tone it down under instruction to not alienate those that the Lincoln lobbyists are attempting to bring across the aisle. Stevens appeals to politics-weary audience members today -- a politician that scoffs at politics and whose life is devoted to equality.

The dichotomy between the political approaches of Lincoln and Stevens in their attempts to appeal to other constituents is also a dichotomy of performance. Day-Lewis is mannered, dignified, and articulate, rarely raises a voice, and can glide in and out of a room unperturbed. Jones rarely drops his voice, scowls and demands attention whenever he enters or leaves a scene.

The other showy role of contrast is given to Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. As deep as Lincoln gets into the political landscape of the 1860s, it is only at a surface level. Spielberg uses the Lincolns' marriage, wracked with guilt and loss due to political sacrifices and the death of one of their children, to dig below the political surface. Lincoln is reserved to playing out in many different rooms of power, but the private room of the Lincoln's bedroom has the longest debates: over proper grief, the enlistment of their son (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) and whether or not she's ruined his life.

For Spielberg, deciding to set the film primarily in rooms almost as a play, makes this perhaps his least showy affair. Even his composer, John Williams (he of sweeping scores of grandeur) rarely strikes a note higher than a piano key. The restraint makes for a luminous and engaging performance piece for the first two-thirds. However, post-ratification the film wanders off course with his impending assassination. The implications of his assassination aren't necessarily explored, it just sort of happens -- like the lurch of a carriage reaching its destination. For a film that greatly explores grief, the final act feels clunky. Perhaps what Spielberg is trying to communicate in Lincoln is that losing Lincoln is a lesser grief than if he hadn't already been able to change the world.