Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book) (in part)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sally Field, Jared Harris, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Gloria Reuben
If, as one anonymous commentator once said, “politics is the art of the possible” (or more prosaically, “politics is the art of compromise,” then Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, was one of the 19th-cenury’s most accomplished practioners of the art form. At least that’s what Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating historical drama/biopic, LINCOLN, would have moviegoers believe. That emphasis, inspired in large part by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s improbably best-selling, award-winning tome, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” returns the semi-deified Lincoln to his status, first and foremost, as an imperfect human being struggling, not with the inherent immorality of slavery, but with opposition inside (and, of course, outside) the political party he ostensibly leads and the party he most definitely doesn’t.
The Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) we meet in the last months of the Civil War slips in and out of the shadows near a battlefield, his silhouette a powerful, perhaps even overwhelming reminder of his elevated, exalted position in American history. But this Lincoln isn’t just a vaguely sainted historical figure, more myth than man. This Lincoln sits on a slightly raised deck, interacting with the Union troops, including two African-Americans, both naturally respectful, but one more assertive than the other. This Lincoln doesn’t need to be persuaded of slavery’s immorality, but he’s also a man caught in the conflicting political demands of his office, including his commander-in-chief role.
It’s in that role as commander-in-chief that Lincoln realizes, probably not for the first time, that the opposition to slavery is, for some, maybe many members of his party, politically expedient. If the Union wins the war, the pressure to abolish slavery dissipates, something his closest confidante and Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), voices on multiple occasions, slavery will remain. Lincoln’s oratorical skills (he wrote his own speeches) extend to his powers of personal persuasion. He convinces a reluctant Seward to push for support for the constitutional amendment to abolish slavery among the Republican Party’s many factions. He also has to find a way to secure an additional 20 votes from the Democratic Party, many of whom have lost their seats in the same election that won Lincoln a second term, to support the amendment. Lincoln isn’t afraid to violate an ethic or two in exchange for the necessary votes needed to reach for a two-thirds majority.
To obtain the last few votes, Seward enlists the not-quite-legitimate services of three operatives, W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes), Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), but when their assistance fails to obtain the requisite votes, Lincoln steps in personally. As the vote approaches, Lincoln has to contend with his emotionally fragile wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), and his oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Like other young men his age, Robert wants to join the army. Like any mother, Mary attempts to stop him, setting up another conflict that Spielberg and his screenwriter, playwright Tony Kushner, expertly handle. With the focus resolutely on Lincoln, there’s little, actually no, room for the set pieces that have come to define Spielberg’s career as a mainstream filmmaker.
Spielberg does, however, show one close-quarters battle in the opening sequence, but the emphasis is on naturalism and realism, not the awe and wonder of spectacle. It’s fought in heavy rain, in the mud. Their rifles useless (or already used), they use their bayonets. The subsequent emphasis isn’t on war or battle, but the scenes between war and battle. In a later scene, Lincoln visits Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), the future president and the Union general most closely associated with winning the Civil War, to discuss the war’s progress.
Spielberg’s Lincoln (and the historical one too) isn’t above (or below) telling a story with a ribald, earthy punch line. In fact, he revels in storytelling. He tends to preface his answers with a seemingly irrelevant story that often tries the patience of the members of his cabinet, but it’s his way of finding his way to an answer. Storytelling also works as another rhetorical device to convince his listeners of the rightness of his views. It also functions to wear them down. Sometimes his tendency to wait, to think out a solution or solutions to a problem, works against him. He’s considered a vacillator, hesitant to press a perceived advantage. If LINCOLN is any indication, however, Lincoln’s vacillation worked to his advantage, at least once he decided on a course of action.
Even though there shouldn’t any suspense about the amendment’s passage, Spielberg still manages to make passage doubtful, shifting between the amendment’s advocates led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a Radical Republican and a staunch abolitionist, and the amendment’s opponents led by Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), a Democrat and a New Yorker. Their rhetorical parries often turn on personal insults, the more colorful the better. Other obstacles emerge too, including rumors of a Confederate peace delegation waiting outside the capital to meet with Lincoln, before Spielberg lingers on the vote, cross-cutting between the House of Representatives, the White House, and officers in the field, including Grant, as news of each vote arrives via telegraph.
For some, perhaps many, LINCOLN will seem like just another history lesson, necessary, but not particularly wanted. It’s that, certainly, but it also offers abundant insights into Lincoln’s personality, his relationships, personal and professional, fraught as they were with the weight, sometimes invisible, but always present, of war, and almost as importantly, the the political process, as complex and difficult then as it is now. Leaving the excesses of last year’s execrable WAR HORSE behind, Spielberg shows remarkable restraint and tact, often letting scenes play out without music, allowing performances, dramatic content, dialogue, and Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography to dictate mood, atmosphere, and pacing. For some, LINCOLN’s deliberate pacing will prove too much (or too little), but those who look beyond that particular issue will find something else entirely, a film that engrosses as it enlightens and quite possibly Spielberg’s best film in more than a decade.