Written by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Tony Kushner
Directed by Steven Spielberg
The American Civil War has been slogging on for four years. Hundreds of thousands are dead, and many in the North want it to end. President Abraham Lincoln has been elected to a second term by a landslide and has one thing he wants to spend his political capital on The 13th Amendment. Members of his cabinet and the Republican party are highly skeptical of betting all their chips on this risky Constitutional move. Lincoln is steadfast and works every angle possible to garner the votes. Meanwhile, a peace commission has been sent by Confederate leader Jefferson Davis to end things, but Lincoln knows if peace without the freedom of slaves is on the table the legislators will likely go with peace and nothing else. Time is running out, more than even the President realizes.
This is the final film in this round of Red, White, & Blue Cinema. We close things off less than a week before the 2018 midterm with a movie about American politics and government set nearly two centuries prior. To make a film about Abraham Lincoln feels unnecessary in some ways. The most iconic film about the figure still appears to be John Ford’s The Young Mr. Lincoln, the picture that solidified Henry Fonda as a cinematic hero in the same way Gregory Peck was sanctified playing Atticus Finch. Taking on the dauntingly complex role of the sixteenth president of the United States is Daniel Day-Lewis whom once again transforms himself. When the credits started rolling my first thought was about how damn good Day-Lewis is. I watched Phantom Thread at the start of this year and comparing that performance to this reveals just how astonishingly talented he is. Day-Lewis truly leads the audience into an immersive experience where the actor becomes a blank slate for the character to be projected upon. For all the jokes and mockery of his method acting, it works!
When we examine Lincoln, we have to acknowledge the filmmakers behind it. The film is based on the nonfiction book A Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The script was penned by Tony Kushner, a prominent LGBTQ writer (most notably of Angels in America). The movie was directed by Steven Spielberg, an incredibly divisive figure in filmmaking, and a divisive one for myself. A woman and two Jewish men (one of whom is gay) telling the story of Abraham Lincoln, a white Protestant man. But, I think the story of someone like Lincoln, a president so unlike any presidents of our modern time and very unlike anyone to come before or after, takes a unique voice, an outsider’s perspective. Lincoln was in many ways an outsider, to his party and even his own family. The movie weaves in elements of the Lincoln family’s struggles (Mary Todd’s trauma from a carriage injury & lingering grief over the loss of their son, their eldest’s sons insistence on joining the Union army). I’d argue those are the weakest parts of the movie, yet not terrible.
The strength of Spielberg’s Lincoln is the way he incorporates so much history in so little time. Yes, it is over two and a half hours long but even then so much has to be compressed or merely implied. Not once during the film’s runtime did I find myself drifting off and there is little an average viewer would find deeply compelling at first glance. This is a movie about people talking over legislation and maneuvering politics. During this marathon though, I saw those movies to be the most engrossing. Advise & Consent. The Best Man. These were the political movies that centered mostly the dance of politics, the posing and promising. All the President’s Men is just a picture about reporters talking about a story they are researching. If the core of the movie is about essential ideas and the performers, understand how to convey these ideas in a manner that hooks an audience then these can be more exciting than the most budget-bloated blockbuster a studio can manufacture.
Spielberg, Kearns, and Kushner emphasize how much the tide of the times was against the 13th Amendment yet also how many abolitionists had devoted their lives and souls to fighting slavery. Tommy Lee Jones as prominent abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens was one of the great supporting performances of the picture. You don’t lose him as much in the role as Daniel Day-Lewis can, but Jones brings us to the depths of Stevens’ emotions and convictions. A moment on the floor of the House forces Stevens into diluting his views (considered radical by many) for the sake of passing the bill. We see the shame he feels but, when confronted by a fellow member of his party afterward it becomes clear this is not about his guilt, but the freedom of people who have suffered one of the most profound injustices.
To watch this film or any film about President Lincoln is to wonder will a leader like this ever come again. The soft-spoken nature, the ever seeming fragility of his physical form, the oration and storytelling of a lawyer telling contemporary political parables. Yes, there is a mythification going on with Lincoln, and no leader will ever truly live up to the public relations gig Hollywood can do for them. However, with as dark as our nation’s current leadership is I have to hope that someone like Abe can come again. His time was even more divisive than our own, the nation in full out civil conflict while ours simmers and rages in bursts of violence. The other question is can we have a leader like Lincoln who won’t be killed by people so mired in their hatred? I don’t know the answer to any of these things, and I doubt anyone else does.
In his 1861 inauguration, President Lincoln famously said:
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
I want to believe this. I want to see this. But I doubt. And I think that is okay.