Never is Lincoln–man or movie–more compelling than when the Frankenstein-straight figure, in stovepipe hat and undertaker’s coat–the myth of rectitude himself–is crumpled like a five-dollar bill. It is as late at night as it is in the war, and a Confederate peace delegation is waiting secretly in the wings. Peace now could put the war out of its literal misery. It could also permanently blunt the momentum of an amendment that would abolish slavery once and for all. The question is: How much is present-day blood worth against clean hands for posterity? It’s rounding the 16th president’s brilliant mind like a buzzard. He can only get the 13th Amendment passed with the support of his grand young party’s conservatives, who’ve insisted on this hush-hush diplomatic mission as an insurance policy. For them, and for lame-duck Democrats who’ll sell out to the highest bidder (which happens, in some cases, to still be a slave-economy South), ending the war is the highest priority; for the Radical Republicans, on the other hand, abolition is just a flimsy Band Aid on top of a great moral wound. (To borrow the movie’s fine metaphor, Lincoln’s task is to bend their moral compasses toward moderation in the name of eventual progress.) In short, if the delegation makes it to Washington, and the secret gets out that a truce is on the table, slavery is there to stay. And Lincoln weighs the difference, stroking his gaunt forehead before the telegraph-room late shift that awaits his command: Should the Confederates be sent the signal to come or…? In place of an answer, the president brings up geometry. Euclid was the autodidact’s entrée into the ways of the world; Lincoln tries to reconcile his moral concerns with mathematical certainties. Then he asks his men if they believe in another kind of plan–and the junior officers, speaking tentatively to their commander-in-chief as if he was their drunk boss at an office party, deliver their views on God. To the chagrin of historians, the great man does not dispense his. But after this discourse, couched in metaphor, the man in black, scrunched like someone in a waiting room about to hear whether or not the tumor is malignant, unfurls his response. The delegates are to wait for him in Virginia.
Yet the film begins inauspiciously, shelling itself with pedantry. Union soldiers, black and white, approach their leader with shocking informality, pressuring him into the policies this movie makes a subject of enacting as if they were time travelers delivering warnings from the future. The Lincoln they’re addressing is no marble sculpture peering down with the angels; Daniel Day-Lewis’s lax posture sets the tone for the movie’s portrayal of our secular saint as a sort of hip youth pastor who cradles his lieutenants’ hands while they await news from the front and has folk humor in store to smooth every occasion–a sly flouter of his own authority. When Day-Lewis fires off rounds of intellectual nictating, he’s at his crispest, not only because the old-country-lawyer anecdotes that Tony Kushner supplies him with are funny, but because we’re hit with the Lincolnesque one-two high-low punch–the bark of a born underdog. (Just because Abe is honest doesn’t mean he’s above working a room.) At times, though, the lack of deference beggars belief: Did William Seward (David Strathairn) really talk down to him like a disappointed mother? As close as the two men were in reality, and as talented a nag as Strathairn is, it seems anachronistic to suggest that the secretary of state was the president’s straight man in a Borscht Belt routine. Team of Ribald!
Whatever its flaws, however, the tension between high and low is what keeps the union of form and content in Lincoln together. The boy born in a log cabin who’s never forgotten his roots–the hero who freed the slaves in the second least controversial war behind the one in which Private Ryan was saved–is a subject for Steven Spielberg; it’s the Hamlet figure that probably attracted Day-Lewis, Kushner, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Aesthetically speaking–in a unique, savant sort of way–Spielberg was a man-child before it was cool (scratch that, mandatory) to be a man-child. In a tradition as American as his entertainment values, however, he’s always wanted to be more: Schindler’s List by the man who made Jaws smacks of social mobility, for better or for worse. When he bifurcated his instincts into two films last year, Tintin and War Horse, he stammered in search of relevance–his idea of seriousness, it seemed, had gotten as musty as his memories of childhood. Lincoln, however–unlike its unfortunate namesake–is bullet-proof. It’s the granddaddy of trans-brow subject matter, and if a movie has only the biggest, most soigné names behind it, its box-office and critical ambitions are archly conservative whatever its politics on screen–there’s little risk of these golden geese not laying an Oscar-colored egg. Alas, the lack of risk paid off. And it’s as scrumptious, and inclusive, as a Thanksgiving spread. It’s an event: Avatar in a frock coat.