Since Filmman deleted his review, I’ll post mine.
After the first few minutes of Lincoln, I thought it was going to be a classic example of Steven Spielberg’s moralizing and patronizing slathering of white guilt–a sequel to Amistad. It is January 1965, and the President is talking to black soldiers, one of whom complains about not being paid the same as white soldiers, or being able to be an officer. A few other soldiers start quoting the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln, and the black soldier completes it. Hokey city!
Then the film gets didactic, as Lincoln, sensing the war is coming to a close, wants to push through the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery. We get all sorts of political chatter that would thrill wonks like Chuck Todd.
But then the film loosens up and turns into something great, as Lincoln the man starts to show up. The film is based in part on Team of Rivals, the popular book by Doris Kearns Goodwin. That book is subtitled The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. America’s sixteenth president is now something of secular saint, but it is often forgotten that the man was an incredibly shrewd political animal, and that’s the spine of this film. He’s willing to do anything, even lying, to get the Amendment passed. As someone says late in the film, after the amendment passes in the House of Representatives, “The greatest thing of the 19th century, with corruption aided and abetted by the purist man in America.”
Most of the film is rounding up bodies for the vote in the house. The amendment has passed the Senate, and while the Republicans have a solid majority, Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote. Lincoln, along with his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) reckon that lame-duck Democrats, with nothing at stake, may be able to have their arms twisted with patronage jobs. Seward employs three proto-lobbyists (an excellent trio of character actors–James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake-Nelson) to get the votes.
Meanwhile, the Lincoln family struggles. Mary (Sally Field) still hasn’t gotten over her son Willie’s death, and the eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to leave Harvard and enlist, much to his mother’s objections. Field captures the mental impairment of the woman deftly. Most likely Mary Lincoln was bipolar, but there was no treatment for someone like that in those days except the madhouse, a place she is threatened with.
Looming over this film is Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. At times I forgot I was watching an actor. Of course there is no film of Lincoln to know what he sounded like, but when I think of him speaking I’ll now think of Day-Lewis. There have been other great performances Old Abe, including Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey, and Sam Waterston, but I think this one is the definitive one. Day-Lewis, taking the lead from Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, portrays the central aspect of the man–he was cloaked in melancholy (speculation is that he suffered from depression) and that the White House was shrouded in grief, both from Willie’s death and the pall of the thousands dead from the war.
There are dozens of other characters, many of them the congressmen of the time. Most prominent is Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican of Pennsylvania who believed in complete equality of the races. He is able to compromise his beliefs (he believes in allowing blacks to vote) to help the amendment pass. Tommy Lee Jones, with crags in his face like a moonscape, is brilliant in the role, especially in a scene in which he easily persuades a congressman not only to vote for the Amendment, but also to change parties.
Others on the scene are a Republican fixer (Hal Holbrook), the Vice President of the Confederacy (Jackie Earle Haley, a dead ringer for Alexander Stephens), General Grant (Jared Harris), and Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), congressman from New York. Wood, as Mayor of New York City, had advocated for the city’s secession from the U.S.
There are many historical details that ring true. Lincoln did love to hang out at the telegraph office, chatting with the soldiers. He also loved to tell stories to make points, much to the annoyance of those around him. He was a great wit–when meeting Spader, who understands what he is saying, he says, “What a joy it is to be comprehended.” But back then many of those spoke in a flowery language lost to us. Stevens insults a colleague by calling him a “fatuous nincompoop,” and how long has it been since you heard the word “ossified” or “petitfoggery” used in natural conversation?
What’s most important about this film is that it does not indulge in the “moonlights and magnolia” attitude about the South. This film, and rightly so, sees the Confederates as traitors. I wonder how this will play among those who have the Stars and Bars on their pickup trucks, or refer to the Civil War as “the War of Northern Aggression.” There is only brief shot of Robert E. Lee, shown in defeat.
Of course this movie is not a comprehensive study of Lincoln or the war. For that I recommend Ken Burns’ documentary. But this is a thrilling film. When Lincoln, with bill passed in Congress, tells Alexander Stevens that “slavery is done” I felt a little chill up my spine.
My grade for Lincoln: A-.