Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Joseph Cross, Jared Harris, Fernando Wood
US theatrical: 9 Nov 2012 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 25 Jan 2013 (General release)
Partisan politics. Are there two more modern words in our ridiculous Red State/Blue State lingo? While we have long since given up on the notion of “One Nation, Under God” (feel free to pick apart any aspect of that four word phrase), we haven’t seceded from our spirit of anti-compromise. So naturally, when we look back at our country’s prosaic past, we view everything through the rosiest glasses the historians would have us wear. As a result, it might surprise you to see the veritable and venerable mud being slung as part of Steven Spielberg’s sensational Awards season offering, Lincoln. Instead of showcasing our 16th President as the saint many seem to see him as, this movie accentuates his stunning abilities as a politician, and his hard fought battle for equality among the races.
Instead of being a standard biopic, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner decide to focus on Lincoln’s second term. The Civil War is waning (and in the North’s favor), the Confederacy is desperate for a deal, and our Commander in Chief (an absolutely brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis) is dealing with delicate matters both in Congress and the White House. Of primary concern is the proposed 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Since it bans slavery, it is a favorite of the Republicans and staunch party Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and a bane to the many vocal members of the Democratic contingent.
Hoping to find solidarity in his party, he agrees to let a high placed friend (Hal Holbrook) reach out to the South. In the meantime, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn) hires three unscrupulous rogues (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) to find Democrats who they can bribe, cajole, and threaten into siding with the President. All of this occurs while Lincoln battles with his eldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who wants to enter the military and his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field) whose building dementia will not sway her from challenging and censoring her husband into doing the right thing…at least, how she sees it.
Dropping us directly into the fray without any real context and hoping we can pick up the pieces and the players as the drama unfolds, Lincoln is a masterpiece of manipulated storytelling. It offers the battle for the 13th Amendment as a bellwether to its protagonist’s soul and mythos. Homespun, beyond colloquial, and dripping with intense period detail, this is not your grandfather’s 16th President. Instead, Spielberg struggles with finding the right balance between power and persona and hits the right notes over and over again. The result is a symphony for our sadly divided times, a song about putting politics aside to do what’s best for the country and its burgeoning underclass of subservient peoples. While it’s shocking to see supposedly educated men argue over the “property” value of slaves, this is America circa 1865. It’s a snapshot as accurate as it is appalling.
So is the last act exploitation of the system by our beloved future icon. Lincoln, as essayed with savvy and assurance by Day-Lewis, believes in the absolute power of the Presidency. He just doesn’t wield said authority willy-nilly. Instead, he waits…and then strikes with the precision of a jeweler’s knife. There is a moment when he confronts a Congressman who is fighting for his very seat (it is up to the Governor of his state to make the final call). While asking for support for the 13th, Lincoln makes it very clear that, without a promise of “Yes,” he may intercede in the decision. Later on, he asks another for a “favor,” though the set-up suggests it’s more of a demand than anything else.
Lincoln loves to show this side of the system. Spader, Hawkes, and Nelson are like the Three Stooges of graft, running around a war-torn Washington trying to shore up support for the President while enjoying the lustful and liquid fruits of their endeavors. Similarly, Seward and Stevens are both portrayed as smart and sneaky, doing things they know will get them ahead while trying to look noble and knowing to others around them. If anything, Lincoln is a primer on politics, proving that things have always been this way. Party unity in defiance of reality are not post-modern concepts. Instead, they existed long before this President pressed his advantages.
For some, the lack of scope will be problematic. We do get to see Lincoln in battle mode, but there is precious little about the Civil War itself. A trip to a military hospital meant to steer his son away from service hints at the horrors we could have witnessed. Similarly, an opening battle between muddy soldiers from either side argues for a much more brutal and unbiased view. But Spielberg wants to deal with people and personalities, not strategies and States’ rights. Perhaps this is why the confrontation scene with the Confederate contingent comes across as so anticlimactic. Without knowing what’s really at stake (except the Amendment), it’s hard to get worked up over a ridiculous attempt at a peace plea bargain.
Yet for all these slights, Lincoln survives. In fact, it soars above other likeminded movies to get us deep into the process without losing us in the minutia between these men. All the performances are amazing, and Spielberg shows a subtle hand, even during moments that could end up being overplayed for patriotism or point. This is a movie bathed in shadows, set in a White House that feels like an ancient tomb instead of the bustling center of a nation. Even the actors come across as a bit uncomfortable and unkempt, with the President’s prominent facial hair constantly shifting from unseen bad barbering. It’s these details that make Lincoln so fascinating. When you add in the history lesson, it becomes a cinematic standard.
Indeed, as he did with Schindler’s List, Spielberg has made the definitive film on another important facet of history. As one angry Congressman says on the floor of the House, freeing the slaves would lead to “unimaginable” issues later on down the line - like the vote for women! It’s a stunning slap in the face to those who feel entitled and invested in the current political clime, especially those who argue against the government’s role in social issues. As a piece of period art, as a way of looking at this beloved leader in a new and realistic light, Lincoln is fantastic. As drama, it drags. As history, it’s hindered by a lack of scope. Still, for what it brings to the political table, it’s terrific.