Abraham Lincoln: was the 16th President of the United States; commander-in-chief during the Civil War; Illinois lawyer turned emancipator of slaves; first architect of reconstruction; sometime vampire hunter; and he debated Stephen Douglas for Senate on Old Main’s front steps. Kind of a big deal.
Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”: a historical bio-epic about the last year of Lincoln’s life; majestic but sensible; timelier than you’d think; a balance of sentiment and grit, admiring Lincoln and understanding his lonely mind; a courtroom drama with character; starring Daniel-Day Lewis, a man who’s a bigger character than most actors playing their greatest role.
Kind of a big deal; kind of a great film.
The Civil War has gone for four years with great bloodshed. The film’s first shots concoct a muddier, more claustrophobic vision of war than “Saving Private Ryan’s” Normandy landing: men wrestling in a torrent, brawling, snarling, drowning under each others’ boots in the mud as muskets stab at them. The country, both sides of it, has suffered enough.
In the wake of his re-election, Lincoln declares the time is right to transform his Emancipation Proclamation into constitutional scripture. He presents the Thirteenth Amendment to the House of Representatives as the key to ending the war: slavery is the prime issue separating the Union and Confederacy, so removing it takes away all reason to fight. Reconstruction begins, “we the people” is returned to its literal sense and Lincoln claims both military and cultural victory.
If the amendment passes at all, which shrewd Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) observes is unlikely. Assuming 100% support from Republicans, they need at least twenty “yes” votes from lame-duck Democrats to pass the law without any margin, and that’s if the war doesn’t end before a vote. Any peace treaty or decisive battle favoring the Union and abolition is off the table; any suggestion that freed African Americans will be enfranchised? Dead on arrival.
The film is not about Lincoln but rather the DC-wide scramble as everyone navigates this judicial tangle, fighting against or for prejudice, determining their place in the disorder of the nation. It ends as an inspiring film about a great man and his fight for human rights, but the road there doesn’t mince words: it takes much more in politics than a belief in equality to affect major change. Lincoln compromises; he gives vague anecdotes and jokes instead of clear answers on race; he never takes the slavery beast by the horns, in contrast to Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who is hawkish and intolerant of bigots; a man who can’t stand for compromise when human rights are on the line. This, Lincoln tells him bluntly, will not to do. Fragile times call for fragile, resolute measures to affect change.
For two-and-a-half hours, this slow-burn roller coaster carries us through the wrangling and sweating of legal procedures that haven’t been so exciting since Twelve Angry Men. There’s a stark familiarity behind the period detail: a suspenseful vote and the swing voters needed to decide it; a fiery partisan world, waging war over issues of equality and people deemed sub-human. The nail-biting vote scene, as each congressman answers “yay” or “nay,” had audiences whispering “yay” like a good luck charm, as rapt as on Nov. 6, when they watched the electoral map fill with reds and blues.
It’s as classical as classical cinema gets, heavy on dialogue and tradition, but Lincoln applies to the struggles of modern day too: pride, hurt masculine egos, the fight for women’s and black and LGBT rights … themes familiar to screenwriter Tony Kushner, who also wrote the Pulitzer-winning play Angels in America. Humanity sticks out from the politics: a subplot with Lincoln’s son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wanting to join the army gives us a glimpse into Lincoln’s uncomfortable role as father, and Sally Field’s Mary Todd is not just putty in her husband’s hands; she rings with a temper that refuses to be broken by the fragility required of First Ladies.
When the operatic gravity threatens to overwhelm, we’re relieved with spots of humor, mostly from the three rascally, overeager operatives played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes, charged with bribing fidgety Democrats into the abolitionist vote. Tommy Lee Jones has honed his acidic hardass archetype so tightly he sends ripples of laughter just by spelling out the word “Republican,” and to Lincoln tells lewd anecdote with an impish smile.
Lincoln is the key. He might not bear full focus like the title suggests but Day-Lewis’s performance eradicates all worry that Lincoln would idolize its subject too deeply. It doesn’t dote or exaggerate. One even wonders if the President is all quite there. He’s not the person who talks to or is talked to; Abraham Lincoln orates, and if he can’t connect with others he at least guides them from his tall, lonely vantage point. Anybody but Day-Lewis and the endless monologue stream would meander into oblivion. He gives it form, substance and a conviction in himself that anchors the myth in human being.
Spielberg permits himself just a moment’s indulgence when he superimposes Day-Lewis across a flaming candle; this is Lincoln the symbol, burning beyond the grave. We should be grateful he decided for the rest of Lincoln to show us Lincoln the individual, a singular man with a vision we can’t always see or penetrate but who stood for dreams as tall as the hat on his head.