Rating: 4/4 stars
Lincoln, to my great joy, adroitly manages all of the above. Day-Lewis, looking and sounding nothing like Daniel Plainview (thank Heavens) turns out one of the best performances of his career to date, ensuring himself at least a fifth nomination for Best Actor, and possibly his third win. Abraham Lincoln is an easy person to portray simplistically, as a moral crusader ahead of his time, and a genius always above the mere mortals around him. Spielberg’s masterful direction and Day-Lewis’ incredible acting, however, take us past the romanticizations and show us a man struggling with depression, a troubled marriage, and the unimaginable duress of trying to save a country literally tearing itself apart.
Based largely on the excellent biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln focuses on the last months of the man’s life in 1865, specifically the push to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to officially abolish slavery. After winning an election that also saw Republicans gain huge majorities in the House and Senate, Lincoln faces a difficult choice- should he push for passage of the Amendment now, despite Democratic opposition in the House, or wait until after the inauguration, when huge Republican majorities in both Houses will allow him to do virtually anything he could want? Believing immediate passage of the Amendment to be both a moral right and, pragmatically, another blow to the already reeling Confederacy, Lincoln decides to push for a bipartisan vote on the Amendment within a month, risking the success of the Amendment, his own reputation and legacy, and potentially the outcome of the war itself on what easily amounts to one of the biggest political gambits of his life.
Since passage by the lame-duck Congress would require at least 20 of the recently defeated Democrats to break ranks and vote “yay,” Lincoln, working closely with Secretary of State William Seward (played by Edward R. Murr....I mean, David Strathairn) and Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the pro-equality Radical Republicans (Tommy Lee Jones), engages in an endless string of behind-the-scenes convincing, strong-arming, and downright deception and bribery that jars wonderfully with his traditional “Honest Abe” moniker and shows off his genuine brilliance as a politician. Tommy Lee Jones’ Stevens, as angry and in-your-face as Lincoln is calm and reserved, carries every scene he’s in, leaving small doubt as to why he was often called “the Dictator of Congress.”
While debate in the House rages (literally) over the coming vote, the audience is given the occasional glimpse into the personal lives of Lincoln and Mary Todd, still suffering from the early death of their son William (by that time two of their four children were dead). While Day-Lewis’ performance is the most engrossing of the film, Sally Field’s as Mary Todd is easily the most haunting. Sobbing inconsolably in a darkened room one scene and smiling cheerfully to guests in the next, Field brings home more than any actor in the film the tragedy that dogged her and her husband throughout their married life, and the strain it put on both them as public figures who were, at a deep, personal level, intensely private people.
And that’s one of the things I appreciated the most about this film; it doesn’t attempt to wave away or hide the many flaws, prejudices, and trials of its protagonists. The Civil War leaders were some of the most remarkable people this country (and indeed the world) has ever seen, but they were also just as much products of their own times. It’s all too easy, looking back now, to project our own 21st-century sensibilities onto 19th-century men and women. For most people today, it is far more self-evident that, yes, all races ARE equal, and, yes, we all deserve the right to vote, live, and marry as we please (and though plenty may still think otherwise, few would dare say so out loud).
Such was not the case during the Civil War, and to forget that these people were both admirable and imperfect is to do a disservice to their memories, and thankfully this movie embraces that wholeheartedly. Lincoln, although a life-long opponent of slavery, had much murkier (and more prejudiced) views on race equality and amalgamation, and vocally supported the idea of sending freed slaves to colonies like Liberia in Africa. This more complex aspect of his character is captured in what could be one of the most under-appreciated scenes of the entire film; when Mary’s black maid directly asks Lincoln about what he thinks “her people” should do after emancipation, he quietly (one might say cagily) ducks around giving a direct answer. In another scene, on the floor of the House, the mere suggestion that emancipation could lead to voting rights for not just blacks, but even WOMEN as well (gasp!) nearly causes a riot.
What the film also takes pains to remind us, though, is that such differences between our respective eras in no way diminishes the significance of the Thirteenth Amendment’s passing or its relevance to today, nor blight the legacies and characters of those who made it happen. Progress, it gently reminds us, can be slow, agonizing, and painful, and even those with the best of characters and intentions can be hard-pressed to bring it about. The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment did not “cure” the ills of racial prejudice and inequality that plagued America at the time, just as the ascension of a black man to the Presidency a century and a half later has not “cured” our own prejudices and inequalities.
Lincoln is an opus of a film, easily one of the finest of Spielberg’s already stellar career, and will probably be a heavy favorite for Best Picture come Oscar time. What one might easily imagine as a huge, sweeping, romantic love letter to one of the greatest Presidents in history is actually a tight and surprisingly intense political drama about one of the cleverest politicians this country has ever seen. And I cannot recommend it enough. Even if, and maybe especially if, you’re sick of the very thought of politics and Congressional bickering (and understandably so). Sometimes, it’s worth remembering that ours are hardly the hardest of times.