What may surprise you, though, is how tense Lincoln gets. Spielberg, of course, has an uncanny talent for this kind of filmmaking. He heightens tension by using visual cues and tricks of the eye, waiting for the perfect moment to release enough to satisfy the conflict on screen. Nearly every scene in Lincoln follows this tension-and-release pattern, whether it’s in a White House drawing room, a Union hospital for injured soldiers, or the raucous floor of the House of Representatives. It’s an agreeable method of storytelling, and it largely explains how Spielberg made the story of the 13th Amendment so deliciously entertaining.
Of course, Lincoln does have its flaws. Sally Field chews miles of scenery as Mary Todd Lincoln, her melodramatic acting methods largely an unwanted distraction from Day-Lewis’s marvelous performance. It’s not that Field does a poor job as first lady, but it’s simply an odd bit of casting. She’s playing a character who seems to be from another film. As a result, the relationship between the president and his wife swerves between dominance and bizarre outbursts. (Is she crazy? Lincoln says no, but you can’t help but wonder if Spielberg had his doubts.)
When Lincoln returns to congressional intrigue, however, it’s nothing short of delightful. Tommy Lee Jones steals many a scene as Thaddeus Stevens, a fervent abolitionist who is initially wary of Lincoln’s intentions, while a brilliant cast of character actors fills out other important figures who played a role in favor of, or opposition to, the abolition movement. (One of my favorites is James Spader’s comic turn as William N. Bilbo, a lobbyist tasked with bribing congressmen to support the amendment.)
Lincoln will make you grin like an idiot. It gives you that unstoppable urge to smile that tickles you deep within your belly. It’s Spielberg at his most endearing and enchanting. Lincoln‘s greatest triumph, however, is its most obvious one. Even though we know that the 13th Amendment will pass, it still seems incredible to watch on screen. I suspect many felt the same way Tuesday night, as the nation watched Barack Obama win re-election, a second term, and broad vindication from the nasty sort of politics he’s faced in recent years. Many overwrought comparisons have been made between Presidents Lincoln and Obama, and while Lincoln doesn’t necessarily aim to be another, you can’t help but make the connection.