I go into any example of Steven Spielberg working in his sentimental mode with a certain skepticism. After all, this is where War Horse came from. On top of that, our sixteenth president is so enshrouded in mythology by this point that — outside of obvious buffoonery like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — it’s difficult to expect much else to reach a mainstream audience. And yet Lincoln — directed by Spielberg from a screenplay by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, adapted from Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s acclaimed Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln — manages to come off as a relatively restrained and nuanced picture not so much of the man, but of the feat he accomplished in January, 1865: the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States, through the House of Representatives.
Much praise has already been heaped onto Daniel Day-Lewis for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, and it is well-earned. Going forward, his is certain to be the definitive Lincoln, displacing the mythical version anchored by Walter Huston from D.W. Griffith’s 1930 biopic. Huston’s baritone is replaced by a high, reedy tenor much closer to reality. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a fully-realized, human character with more personality than persona. And yet this is not really a biography; Lincoln exists in the movie, fully-formed, for us to examine in the context of the end of the Civil War.
The real business of the movie plays out with an immense — and immensely accomplished — cast. As Lincoln pushes hard for passage of the amendment before his reinauguration, his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), urges caution. And yet with sixty-four lame-duck Democrats — a quarter of the entire House — it may yet be possible to squeeze the bill through within the month. It will require holding together the radical abolitionist wing of the Republican Party led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and the more conservative wing under the sway of Republican Party organizer Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook). And it will require another twenty votes from Democrats. The task of this arm-twisting is handed off to a trio of lobbyists (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes) who provide some measure of comic relief. At the same time, Lincoln must deploy Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) to forestall the approach of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), lest word of peace negotiations scuttle the amendment.
Kushner’s script is at its best in its quiet moments of conversation between a handful of people. Here we get the breathing room for Kushner to speak of ideas and ideals, as he does so well. As more people sit in the room, the prose becomes more and more florid. I don’t know whether Stevens’ appearance in the House went as portrayed, but it feels so crafted as a perfectly Spielbergian turning-point that it’s hard to really believe.
And when we turn to Lincoln’s personal life things get even more melodramatic. His efforts to dissuade Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from joining the Army feel phoned-in, quoted from some boilerplate dialogue between fathers and sons. Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) seems almost like two separate characters: an overwrought shell of a woman distraught over the death of her son three years past and a razor-sharp wit who can hold her own against experienced politicians.
The film also has trouble restraining itself to a single, unitary period of time. After the Hampton Roads Conference ties up the loose end about the peace negotiations the story has reached a natural end, and yet it continues on through April as if we don’t all know by heart what happens next. While the start of debate in the House makes for a tight book-end at the beginning, the ending unspools messily, with little reason beyond raw sentimentality.
The truly great biographical film of Abraham Lincoln’s life from cradle to grave has yet to be made; despite an admirable performance by Day-Lewis, this is not it. It is, however, a remarkable exposition of what went into the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, shot through with some insightful exploration of the thoughts and ideas that were in the air at the time.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel test: fail.