Even in a career defined by brilliant performances, Daniel Day-Lewis’ depiction of Abraham Lincoln is a standout. The rest of Steven Spielberg’s new film, which takes our 16th president as its subject, is equally impressive.
”Lincoln” is not a biopic so much as a vividly told story about the tactics and back-room shenanigans that went into getting the 13th Amendment passed —— the amendment that made illegal slavery and involuntary servitude of all sorts outside of legal punishment.
The film takes on urgency once the essential plot —— pared down from screenwriter Tony Kushner’s initial 500-page script about Lincoln’s life story —— is laid out. The Civil War is winding down. The South has dispatched several high-ranking official, including the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), to negotiate for peace. But Lincoln knows that only the prospect of ending the war by constitutionally outlawing slavery will provide enough incentive to get the amendment passed.
The election of 1864 has just taken place; the Senate has already passed the amendment, and Lincoln has a scant few weeks to court lame-duck Democrats in the House of Representatives and unite the disparate wings of his own Republican Party in order to cobble together sufficient support for the measure, but he can’t be seen personally offering patronage jobs to outgoing lawmakers in exchange for their support. His right hand man, William Seward (David Strathairn) engages the services of several influence peddlers —— a “gang of three,” as history remembers them —— to do the dirty work. James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes play these gents; Spader, as W. N. Bilbo, the leader of the three, brings a roguish gusto to the role.
Meantime, Lincoln has Stephens and the rest of the Confederates away in a hotel and kept their presence a secret as best he can. It’s only a matter of time, however, before word gets out that the South is prepared to lay down its arms.
The film’s epic feel is as much a matter of its lavish production and gorgeous cinematography (by the masterful Janusz Kaminski) as its pacing and performances. Day-Lewis shows us Lincoln as a man stoically in charge of his own anxieties and terrors, even as he acts as steward to a fractured nation. His legal and political brilliance is exemplified by the skillfully outlined problems he faces (the Emancipation Proclamation, for example, lacks sufficient force to guarantee the freedom of blacks once the war is over), but it’s his governance at home that balances and fleshes him out.
Mary Lincoln (Sally Field, in a performance that holds its own to Day-Lewis’) has her own domestic agenda, which includes keeping son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) out of the war, despite the young man’s determination to join up and fight. Mary, whom history remembers as insane, is a strong woman, unafraid to stand up to her husband the president, or, for that matter, to politicians like Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, reminding us that he is a terrific actor when he’s not a Man in Black). She’s formidable, forceful, and stubborn; no wonder Lincoln’s advisers pressed him to have her committed. Mary Lincoln is now thought to have been bipolar and depressive, but the film offers a more sympathetic hint: What if she simply was not one of those “well behaved women” who history conveniently forgets?
Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens, a “radical” firebrand whose life’s work was to promote the idea of blacks as fully the human equal of whites, is an old hand at the politics and posturing that drive the legislative branch. Stevens is matched only by Lincoln himself who, when the going gets tough, rolls up his sleeves and wades into the shark tank, bringing to bear his acute and matchless sense of who to pressure, and where their weak points are to be found.
Kushner’s script contains abundant humor and a generosity that humanizes both sides of the question; at times, Kushner also satirizes social attitudes, as when one nay-sayer predicts that if blacks were to get the vote, women would one day also be enfranchised. The howl of outrage that rises at this dire warning makes the hallowed chambers of Congress make feeding time at a primate house seem dignified. Scenes such as this one remind us that political antagonism and sharp divisions of opinion and belief are not a product of our own times exclusively; indeed, it’s part and parcel of the democratic process.
Kushner also seems to be subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, illustrating the arguments for and against the abolition of slavery in a way that reflects upon our contemporary civil rights struggles. Substitute words like “marriage” for “slavery” and “gay” for “black,” and the debate suddenly sounds like something off Fox News or talk radio, howls of protest and all.
Early in the film, Lincoln describes an unsettling dream of being on board a ship that races across a nighttime sea at impossible speed. One interpretation… a Walt Whitman sort of take… might be that he’s the captain of a nation making unprecedented and rapid progress. A century and a half later, blacks and women both have the vote, and America’s first black president has just won his second term. But Lincoln’s remains the hand that steadied our course through the nation’s most extreme crisis. If this film has a trace of greatness about it, that’s probably because of the way Kushner, Spielberg, and Day-Lewis recollect for us the greatness of the man.