In a scene in the middle of Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican congressman, chides Abraham Lincoln for waiting so long to make an attempt to end slavery.
Lincoln responds that if he had tried to end slavery after the war began in 1861, the border states would have joined the Confederacy, leading to the Union’s defeat and making the chances of emancipation even more remote. Stevens sits there with a defensive expression on his face, unable to offer a rebuttal.
Abraham Lincoln’s character – his blend of compassion and pragmatism – is the focus of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, as its title makes clear. Most Civil War epics focus on the great battles between the Union and Confederate armies, but Lincoln concentrates on the role the 16th president played in the great legislative battle over the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery.
Those who pay $9 to see artillery fire and bayonet charges will be disappointed by the film. The few battle scenes are short and brutal, serving only to remind viewers of one of the many pressures weighing on Lincoln’s mind as he decided the best way to end the war.
The ongoing carnage has led the Democrats and the conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives to oppose passage of the 13th amendment out of the fear it will ruin peace negotiations. They pester Lincoln for even bringing up emancipation, while the Radical Republicans pester him for not pressing emancipation hard enough.
In his portrayal of Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a man aware that his role in history is to herd his hard-headed colleagues toward emancipation and peace. He does this mostly through slippery legislative techniques we would associate more with LBJ: patronage, cajoling, and even a little bit of dishonesty. Moralizing is used only as a last resort.
Two of Lincoln’s great speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, make it into the film, but they seem only rhetorical flourishes for Lincoln’s legislative masterwork. Unseemly political tactics are an essential part of Republican government, in any year; during the Civil War our country was lucky to have a brilliant president who used them to achieve great things.
I could think of no historical character more deserving of a portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis, with his well-known thoroughness, than the complicated, monumental Lincoln. Ironically, the British actor brings America’s most revered historical figure to life. Instead of the booming voice most Lincoln impersonators use, he employs a more realistic reedy twang. He demonstrates Lincoln’s penchant for funny anecdotes well enough to get my theater laughing a couple times. With saggy eyelids, a slight hunch and a sad smile, he communicates the weariness and the spiritual burdens Lincoln acquired after four years of a wartime presidency.
He also gives him flaws. In scenes of discord with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and his son, Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he shows Lincoln as a man prone to indecision and anger, like the rest of us. Underneath it all, though, is the wisdom and strength of character that made Lincoln such an icon.
A great cast joins Day-Lewis in creating real people out of the historical figures known only through stodgy old photographs and dry academic writing. Sally Field plays Mary Lincoln as a woman so anxious, in large part due to the death of her son Tad shortly before the beginning of the film, that I both felt sorry for her and wanted to avoid her. Gordon-Levitt’s Robert Lincoln is a frustrated young man imprisoned at Harvard by his mother’s worries while he would rather be proving himself on the battlefield.
Thanks to the full-fledged performances and the attention to detail in the sets, costumes, accents and 19th-century lingo, the movie creates such a convincing image of 1865 that it felt like a precious window into the past. The United States of 1865 is a character itself, tired of war and uncomfortable with the great changes it is undergoing. The new capitol building is so blindingly white that it seems both inspiring and awkward amongst the dingy buildings and muddy streets of Washington, D.C. The telegraphs that bring news of the results of battles and their casualties seem to strike the characters as exciting and frightening, and the same could be said of the freed blacks who have just begun serving in the army.
At the end of the movie, when I stepped out of the theater into the parking lot, I felt like I had returned from a trip to the past. I was conscious of the fact that I and my surroundings were products of the historical currents portrayed in the movie. Some characters in the movie, including Lincoln, ask what America should be like after the war ends, how it can heal the scars of slavery. Stepping back into modern-day America, I had an opportunity to examine the way the United States chose to proceed from their eyes.