Two icons, Abraham Lincoln and James Bond, make triumphant appearances this week in movies with more in common than you’d expect. True, Lincoln is a titan of history, liberator of slaves and as such an adversary of Western colonialism, while 007 is an outlandish stereotype embodying white male Western authoritarian power. But the makers of these films do a sterling job of testing their respective subjects in front of our eyes — before pronouncing them fit to carry on in our collective imagination.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln begins in a way that subtly alludes to the Lincoln memorial. We see him first from above and behind. He’s reviewing the troops and gazing down on a pair of black soldiers. Like us, they’re in awe. But then one of them challenges the president on the grounds that they’re paid less than whites — and Lincoln is suddenly more man than monument. He doesn’t have a good answer.
Tony Kushner’s script is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, which focuses on Lincoln the politician. Here, the war is all but won — now the challenge is getting Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting slavery. You say the Emancipation Proclamation did that? Ah, but that was an executive order in wartime. Lincoln needs a law.
The actor taking on the president’s light, cracked voice is Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s a running joke that Lincoln will launch into an illustrative anecdote at the drop of a stovepipe hat, and the actor lets you taste Lincoln’s pleasure in choosing each word. He captures Lincoln’s famous private sadness — as well as the ability to shake it off and become a master politician who knows when to compromise and when to go to the mat.
This is the Lincoln we don’t know as well, the one who made his rival for the presidential nomination — William Seward, played by David Strathairn — his Secretary of State. The one who could come down off that pedestal and bargain.
Is Lincoln the movie as great as Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance? Oh, yes. The shoptalk around passing the Thirteenth Amendment is a bit thick in the early scenes, but all goes swimmingly once Seward engages a lively trio of lobbyists played by John Hawkes, James Spader and Tim Blake-Nelson to descend on Congress dispensing threats and rewards.
Tommy Lee Jones, eyes sagging under a thick-locked toupee, has the show-stopping part of abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who’s counseled to hold his famous temper and misrepresent his anti-racist beliefs for the sake of the vote. The movie makes you root for his white lie — because politics for Lincoln was about passing laws by hook or by crook.
Director Sam Mendes’ Skyfall also shows its hero from a different angle. Mendes has a cheeky attitude toward James Bonds old and new — toward the conflict between the traditional Bond established by Sean Connery and the rough, hurting, rather self-indulgent persona of Daniel Craig’s Bond. Mendes and co-writer John Logan are old Shakespeare hands, and they play up the Coriolanus-like reluctance of Craig’s 007 to do what’s expected of him: to don the tuxedos, take his martinis shaken not stirred, and commit himself unreservedly to Queen and country.
Craig’s Bond is disillusioned with Judi Dench’s M, that mother hen all too ready to sacrifice her chicks for the good of the Mother Country. But in the course of Skyfall, Bond — and we — have to make peace with her less-than-humanist regime, which has produced in ways I won’t reveal a psychotic super cyber-villain named Silva, played brilliantly by Javier Bardem.
The filmmakers run out of invention in the last act, but until then this is an unusually funny, rewardingly literate action picture with a cavalcade of glorious stunts and a shocking punch line. Each familiar trapping has been inspected, reconceived and pronounced fit for duty — and the myth of Bond is mightier than ever.