Spielberg’s powerful portrait of Lincoln the man
Surprisingly intimate yet dealing with moral questions of epic proportion, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a movie befitting its subject as we know him. At once warm and folksy, at others fierce and impassioned, this is perhaps the most accessible film yet made about the Great Emancipator in terms of presenting him as a man – not the mythic rail-splitter cum savior of the Union – who somehow managed to adhere to his moral code, behave with dignity and hang on to his sanity as chaos swirled about him on all fronts.
Based on various parts of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the film focuses on the last four months of the president’s life, primarily on January of 1865 when he was intent on getting the 13th Amendment of the Constitution passed and enacted by Congress. Knowing that the Civil War is coming to an end, Lincoln realizes that the Emancipation Proclamation may be deemed unconstitutional once it is over and in order to ensure that the slaves who’ve been set free remain so, this law must be passed promptly. However, there are other considerations to take into account, namely a peace delegation from the Confederate States that’s due to arrive in Washington at any point that will put forth a proposal to end the war, which Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) urges him to accept immediately. If he does so before the amendment passes, then it likely never will.
However, the most pressing concern is making sure that there are enough votes to pass the amendment if it comes to a vote. What ensues is a display of real politics in action as promises are made, arms are twisted and patronage jobs are given as well many other backroom deals that’s “the end justifying the means” in vivid action. James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes provide welcome comic relief as “skulky men,” charged with getting the final 10 votes needed by hook or by crook. The methods they resort to, though shown in a rather light manner, remind us that politics is a dirty, crooked game. In a similar vein, the discourse between the warring factions on the House floor is so insulting and unbridled that it’s no wonder that fistfights broke out and duels were declared as a result. Were things in the chambers conducted in a similar way today, C-SPAN would never struggle for viewers.
It is this attempt at presenting things in an unvarnished manner that makes Spielberg’s film unique and no one exemplifies that better than Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. The actor brings a quiet dignity to the man. He is seen as the eye of emotional, political and social hurricanes, the calm center in every storm who finds not only the moral solution to each of his problems, but is able to convince others to join him in what might be unpopular decisions. There’s a quiet heroism at work here primarily because Lincoln is portrayed as merely a man, albeit one with extraordinary patience and vision. To be sure, there are moments when a bit of anger is shown and great passion is displayed. It is that his humanity is always present which makes his actions all the more astounding.
Day-Lewis is more than ably supported by Sally Field, who creates a more sympathetic Mary Todd Lincoln than has been previously on display, and Tommy Lee Jones, as Thaddeus Stevens, a fierce abolitionist who must temper his passion if he’s to be of any use to the president. Their efforts as well as those of Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner and many others will be remembered when end-of-the-year awards are handed out. Any accolades they receive will be well deserved. They’ve collaborated to do what many would not have thought possible – in stressing the humanity of Lincoln they’ve managed to elevate his historical stature even higher still.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.