One of the greatest pleasures of “Lincoln,” in fact, is the many characters and performances that strut across its stage. The president’s closest adviser, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), is a D.C. realist aghast at what he considers an act of political suicide. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) has a short fuse lit and re-lit by Lincoln’s meddling. The president’s Republican party is portrayed as a shaky coalition of radicals, centrists, and conservatives, while the Democrats have a similar mix of grandstanding obstructionists and quiet realists. (The film makes clear that the parties are, very generally speaking, nearly the opposite of what we understand them to be now, with Democrats urging a return to prewar policies and values and Republicans pressing the case for greater social inclusiveness.)
So we get Michael Stuhlbarg as Kentucky Democrat George Yeaman, gently agonizing over the right thing to do. We get Lee Pace as New York’s Fernando Wood, the Democrats’ silver-tongued fulminator (against whom Jones’s Stevens gives as good as he gets). Happily, we get James Spader rejuvenating his career as the most juicily amoral of the three men employed by Lincoln to woo lame-duck Democrats with government jobs. (John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson are the other two; today we’d call them lobbyists, but Spielberg uses them as his own Manny, Moe, and Jack.) Kushner’s script winks at such realpolitik chicanery — likewise at the secret peace talks with the Confederacy the president both offers and stalls — while understanding this is both the price and the danger of getting things done. Lincoln’s imperial tendencies are chewed over in dialogue that sparks our own reasoning. “What reins him in?” someone wonders. “Well, the people, I suppose,” comes the rejoinder.
Just so: “Lincoln” neatly balances naivete and cynicism, the highest ideals and the lowest suspicions, in a way that flatters an audience’s ability to think for itself. At the same time it rolls along with the supreme craft we’ve come to associate with this director when he’s pushed by intelligent collaborators. Only toward the end, after the Amendment passes — no spoilers there, although “Lincoln” turns the vote into a finely tuned example of movie suspense — does Spielberg’s hagiographic bent take over and the machinery start elevating the president into the heavens.
Kushner’s taste for speechifying has begun to wear on us by this point, too, and there are scenes that smack more of the stage than the screen. A bitter domestic spat between Lincoln and his wife humanizes the president almost too much; yes, they fought, but this is more Edward Albee’s George and Martha than history’s. (That said, Fields’s performance is a beautiful thing, one that uses the actress’s own neurotic edge — her need for us to really, really like her — to breathe life into a smart, volatile, sorrowful woman.)
“Lincoln” fights against the deification of the patient martyr who stares out at us from our five dollar bills, but in the final scenes Spielberg caves in. Can he be blamed? Would he even be Spielberg without the triumphalism of Great Man moviemaking or John Williams’s Copland-esque score cueing us to easy tears? Thankfully, the director has Kushner to guard against his soggier impulses. (The assassination, for one thing, occurs off-screen.) More to the point, “Lincoln” is about the petty yet profoundly necessary task of forging consensus — of getting small-minded humans to look beyond their immediate concerns to their larger duty. It’s about our flaws, civic and personal, then as now, and what a genuine leader has to do to advance us beyond them, as a people and as a country, if not as individuals.
It’s also about the power of reason, and the power of words to give body and urgency to reason. So, yes, “Lincoln” has a lot of talk, moving and fatuous, florid and brutally concise. This may sound like an ordeal in our era of partisan bloviation, but Spielberg and Kushner rescue language as a holy weapon of persuasion and the only real antidote to killing one another on the battlefield. It’s possible you may think “Lincoln” is too talky — too full of characters and ideas, too taxing to our Twitter-pated attention spans. Consider, then, that it may not be the movie that’s unworthy of your time. You may not be worthy of it.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.