A History Unchallenged: 'Lincoln'

Despite its considerable credentials, Lincoln avoids succumbing to the requisite Spielberg traps—save for a key few. What's interesting, and a little bit disturbing, is how procedurally it treats a sensitive topic like the passage of the 13th Amendment.


Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Lee Pace, Gloria Reuben, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris
Distributor: Dreamworks
Rated: PG-13
Release date: 2013-03-26
"The greatest measure of the 19th century, passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America."

-- Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), after bringing a copy of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to his home

Lincoln is simultaneously exactly the movie you'd expect Steven Spielberg to make and a surprisingly low-key take on his decades-tested style. The production value, the cast, and the credentials of this film are top-level Hollywood; no expense was spared. A veritable who's-who of the finest male actors in American cinema all pop up in one way or another, usually sporting the colorful beards that so define the Civil War. Janusz Kamiński's shadow-heavy cinemaphotography is meticulously arranged, as are the period-perfect sets and costumes. The score, by frequent Spielberg collaborator John Williams, is the stuff that inspirational movies fuel their emotional fires with.

And then, of course, there's Daniel Day-Lewis, who secured his Oscar nomination, if not win, the minute his agent picked up the script. For the entirety of this very long biopic (150 minutes), he dominates the entirety of the screen, despite the quiet grace with which he delivers his interpretation of America's most beloved president. Day-Lewis has never been a "background" performer; even in his secondary roles—particularly his hilarious turn as Cecil Vyse in the Merchant Ivory classic A Room with a View—he magnetically draws the camera to his impeccably conceived method acting. The counterbalance to his calm is the emotionally vacillating Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), who despite oodles of awards season love, is left to a sadly underwritten role, where she oscillates between emotional extremes.

Yet for all of the ways this is the type of Oscar-baiting epic one would expect from a revered director like Spielberg, it surprisingly bucks a lot of the traits that define historical movies. There are no massive battle scenes; save for a brief, bloodless skirmish at the movie's beginning, the entirety of the proceedings here take place in the halls of the White House and the Capitol.

Though Lincoln draws attention for the involvement of Spielberg and Day-Lewis, the voice that stands out distinctly is that of screenwriter Tony Kushner, who has taken a step back from his mystical exploration of social issues (Angels in America) and embraced an almost West Wing-type exploration of vote-counting and party loyalty. Nearly all the interactions here happen between two or three people; it's not hard to imagine a variation of this script existing for the stage, Kushner's typical forte. He keeps a theatre-esque style by limiting his exploration of this still-controversial figure to his final months: the end of the Civil War, the passage of the 13th Amendment, and eventually his death. (Spielberg and Kushner should be credited for what is undoubtedly the most tasteful and surprising depiction of the assassination in cinema yet.)

Lincoln is all about the parliamentary politics that went into the vote on the 13th Amendment. The central controversy in the film is the double-bind the president finds himself in: he wants to both pass the 13th Amendment through a divided congress and come to a peace agreement with the weakened Confederate Army, something all of Lincoln's advisors (including a terse David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward) see as an irreconcilable tension.

With this difficulty in mind, Lincoln pursues his prized legislation through what most would consider to be back-door means. He hires lobbyists and strategic consultants (Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader, a trio that's one of the movie's key assets) to bribe the obstinate Democrats into voting for the amendment. He threatens further exercise of the war powers enumerated to him by the Constitution, harkening back to his suspension of habeas corpus earlier in the war: "I am the President of the United States clothed in immense power—you will procure me these votes!" Spielberg and Kushner do not hold back in depicting the controversial aspects of the Lincoln presidency, a fact that both should be commended for.

However, there is a problem.

History privileges the pen of the conqueror. A brief glance at the cast list for Lincoln—mostly white, mostly male—will reveal this much; though the movie is of course about Abraham Lincoln, it is also necessarily about slavery, the cause to which he devoted the latter part of his career. In the opening scene, one of the film's most sentimental, a group of white and black soldiers recite his Gettysburg Address to him as if it were gospel; it's the type of subtle chest-thumping to be expected from a work about a figure as revered as Lincoln, but it gets right at one of the core issues with the way the filmmakers decided to frame slavery’s (legal) end.

Enter Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the emotional core of Lincoln. A die-hard abolitionist who advocates not only legal but racial equality, Stevens wants to see the 13th Amendment passed. Where the Amendment falters for him, however, is that it does nothing to promote further emancipation down the road, such as the right to vote. That belief is tested in a session of the House one day when the fiery Democratic representative Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) grills him with the intent to discover if the bill is meant to lead to further racial equality.

This is the trying moment for the abolitionist cause within the context of the film. Immediately, a utilitarian calculus presents itself: is it better to rid the Amendment, since it will ultimately lead to a weak freedom in a society that will nevertheless treat the freed slaves as second-class? Or is it better to lie and say it only concerns legal equality, so at least in the short run, slavery could be abolished? Stevens is placed in a precarious position: no matter what he does, it seems like his long-run goal of total equality will be harmed in some significant way.

Stevens, in the end, firmly states his belief that the 13th Amendment's purpose is equality under the law, and nothing more. But as monumental a political feat as legally ending slavery was (witness as the strings begin to swell as the crowd cheers Stevens' 'braveness'), there's something troubling about the way it's seen here. Much of it has to do with its source material, Doris Kearns Goodwin's biographical work Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Like the movie, it examines Lincoln's final months as a political phenomenon, which to a large extent is a legitimate aim; like any other piece of legislation, the 13th Amendment did have to bow to the whims of politics.

The awful reality that Lincoln so frankly depicts is that the decision to end slavery was not truly a good-hearted one motivated by a genuine understanding of the evils of the institution. Rather, ending slavery was seen as a political move, both to end the Civil War and as a further means for the North to assert its dominance over the ravaged South. The freedom of thousands of people—people who don't get nearly as much screentime as their white "saviors" do—is used as a buzzword, a bargaining chip. The members of the House of Representatives argue over this word; they figure out how best "freedom" might fit their comfortable, privileged lifestyle.

"My people have been fighting since the first one of us was slaves. No one asked what freedom will bring," Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), Mrs. Lincoln's confidante, tells Lincoln near the conclusion. What ought to be a fundamental fact of human existence—freedom—is instead a thing for politicians to barter and negotiate over. For white male Congressmen, the question is what goal freedom will achieve; for the countless disenfranchised black Americans, the question is: when will freedom come?

Lincoln raises these questions, but doesn't engage them in the way it does its titular hero, the man who this day is viewed as something of a racial savior—never minding the segregationist rhetoric he also espoused. Abraham Lincoln was certainly a stand-out figure of his time, and is rightly counted among the greatest of American presidents. But the way Spielberg views Lincoln's political bravery as a flawed but ultimately noble goal is troubling; it does show how palm greasing and political gamesmanship played a role in the success of the 13th Amendment, but the film stands back from a distance as it does so, not wanting to critique the president since his goals are noble, but also not wanting to seem insensitive to the rather devious methods with which he achieved them. Like the quality of this movie, it's just there; it's what you would expect.

Day-Lewis effortlessly dominates the screen with his performance. Spielberg's skill behind a camera hasn't changed any. In all the ways it is different from your conventional biopic, it's equally formulaic. (As PopMatters Interviews Editor Evan Sawdey joked, it might best be called "Inspirational Speeches: The Movie".) Lincoln is impressive without ever really having the ability to really blow the audience away. It manages to present the dirty facts of history without airing them out; but, then again, Abraham Lincoln has amassed such a stature in American history that it's unsurprising to see him treated with such reverence.

In a movie full of great shots, one stands out in particular: in an early scene where Lincoln discusses the 13th Amendment with some colleagues of his, a servant woman enters the frame to hand a gentleman some tea. The only things the audience sees are her hands and uniform-clad torso; her head is cut out of the frame completely. Such is the way history so often tells the stories of the slaves: just enough truth to get certain things right, with a whole lot of hurt left out.

The Blu-ray transfer of Lincoln is very beautiful; viewed at 1080p, all the richness of the cinemaphotography comes out with pure clarity, and virtually zero discrepancy between different scenes. The bonus features, meanwhile, are quite lengthy, including a series of features on the film's development that are a must-watch for those interested in seeing how this stately epic came to be.


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