Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Lee Pace, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris
MPAA Rating: (for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language)
Running Time: 2:29
Release Date: 11/9/12 (limited); 11/16/12 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 8, 2012
There is no apotheosis of Abraham Lincoln here. Our first glimpse of him is sitting, not in the regal fashion in which he has been immortalized at the monument to his honor. He is not even sitting on a chair but upon a crate at an Army camp, listening to soldiers' tales of battle, grievances regarding pay inequality, and statements of awe at his presence. Even the Gettysburg Address is left to a trio of soldiers to recite from memory. Indeed, the first time we see the 16th President of the United States speak before a throng of people comes in the final moments of Lincoln, as the President—his image coming out of a flame like a phoenix, as befits one who now "belongs to the ages"—gives his second inaugural address.
Until that final, slow transition that blends an ordinary image with an extraordinary man—turning the former into a symbol and the latter into an idol—Steven Spielberg's film is a sober assessment of its subject. This is Lincoln, the man and, above all, the politician. In bringing Lincoln back down to earth by examining the practical details of his fight to gain enough votes to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States through a lame duck session of Congress and to champion it within a divided Republican Party, Lincoln finds a more subdued sense of reverence for him—not only for what he accomplished but also how he went about accomplishing it.
This is a film that is at once holds an idealistic and cynical view of the operation of government. The cause—the end of slavery—is unquestionably righteous; the means to that end—Lincoln covertly sending the founder of the Republican Party to test the waters of brokering a peace deal with the Confederacy and unofficially employing shady surrogates to offer patronage jobs to House Democrats simply waiting for their Congressional tenures to end—are more questionable. At a critical moment in the film, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis, uncannily embodying the physicality and spirit of this great and deeply troubled man in a truly great performance) must make a choice between ending the Civil War in a week or allowing 10 more days of potential bloodshed so that the House can vote upon the amendment—a vote he has not yet secured.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know the right answer; in that moment, Lincoln does not. When he meets Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) to discuss the terms of the South's surrender, the general notes that the President seems to have aged 10 years since they last saw each other a year ago. This is, of course, a common observation for any President, but none before or since Lincoln (and, hopefully, never again) has had to bear the terrible burden of the country torn asunder—in great part because of his election.
Screenwriter Tony Kushner's Lincoln is a man of seemingly limitless resolve who still harbors doubts. He's an easy-going type—quick to tell a pointed or completely irrelevant story to help make his case or diminish the tension in the room (Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, played by Bruce McGill, becomes so fed up with this trait that he must leave the room as they wait for news on the attack on Fort Fisher)—who can still command a space with oratorical flair. He puts on a brave face for his wife Mary (Sally Field) but is still devastated by the death of their son three years prior. He embraces every moment with his youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) but is almost dismissive of his eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wants to join the Union Army despite his parents' protests.
After a prologue of battle and the aforementioned discussion with soldiers, the film begins after Lincoln's landslide victory in the 1864 election. In January, Lincoln is at the height of his popularity. The Confederacy is weakening. The President determines this is the best and perhaps only opportunity to pass an amendment to the Constitution that would abolish slavery. His Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) objects; he does not understand why Lincoln would expend his extensive political clout on a proposition with the odds against it.
One of the small joys of the film is the attention to the details of a bygone era of politics: people lining up outside the President's office to state their individual problems, people running back and forth between the Capitol building and the White House when Congress requests information from Lincoln, the way the relatively young Congress acts in a more raucous, parliamentary manner. The battle in the House of Representatives is between three factions. The Democrats, led by Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), want no part in the amendment (some out of the belief that it would do no good for Reconstruction and others for simple racism). The conservative Republicans, coordinated by Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), only want to take such extreme measures if it would guarantee an end to hostilities. The progressive, abolitionist Republicans, guided by Thaddeus Stevens (a scene-stealing Tommy Lee Jones), see it as the first step toward true equality for an entire race.
Lincoln acts as mediator and champion. He has managed to convince the parts of the country not in revolt that the war is because of and over slavery. If slavery ends, then so does the war. It is far from being that simple, though, as he explains in an extended monologue to his Cabinet the warped legal logic that brought about the Emancipation Proclamation—a declaration that only works by admitting that the Confederacy is a legitimate nation and that slaves are property, both of which are the exact opposite of Lincoln's beliefs.
The film is heavy on political debates and maneuvering—all of it fascinating in its own right—but Kushner finds as much friction in the internal conflicts of the characters as it does the external grandstanding on the House floor. Here are men willing to compromise their integrity and reputation while refusing to negotiate their principles.
Lincoln is an exploration of an unspoken truth: At some point, the people we have come to admire most in history more than likely got their hands dirty. It's ultimately a question of whether or not the ends justified the means. In this case, history and basic human decency tell us that answer is resoundingly "Yes."
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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