Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s new film about the last months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, opens with an image that could double as a thumbnail for the entire American Civil War. In a shallow stream, soldiers fight each other in a shoulder-to-shoulder battle that looks more like a free-for-all than military combat. They trade blows and bayonet thrusts in the mud, in a bloody conflict that looks likely to leave no survivors. The Union soldiers are black, which only underscores the point that, at heart, they’re fighting a war over slavery, regardless of other factors. While that may seem too obvious a point to make in 2012, it wasn’t always so, and Lincoln is at heart a film about how history gets written, how the laws that shape it get forged, and how the messiness of both processes gets lost in time. In truth, it’s more about that than it is about Lincoln (as played by Daniel Day-Lewis).
Or at least it isn’t the biopic its title suggests. Nor is it the war film suggested by that opening image. Written by Tony Kushner, drawing from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln largely plays like a chamber drama about the difficulty of passing the 13th Amendment, the piece of legislation ending slavery in the United States. It now seems obvious that the law was inevitable. But in the final months of the Civil War, ending the conflict appeared to go hand-in-hand with letting the Confederacy keep its slaves. And even some on the Union side—more than a few—were appalled at the notion of guaranteeing freedom to African-Americans, to say nothing of treating them as equals under the law. Above all, Lincoln concerns itself with portraying the difficult process by which moral absolutes get transformed into laws.
It isn’t always a pretty, or even honorable, process. It’s filled with backroom deals, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, compromise, and gestures just short of bribery. From a knowing distance, the president lets shady operators played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes use coercion and persuasion to win the votes needed to pass the bill, while Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, letting go of the taciturn restraint of Hope Springs in a fiery performance) serves as the hectoring voice of morality. The film doesn’t draw any direct parallels between politics then and politics now because it doesn’t have to. Anyone paying attention won’t miss the resemblance between the past and the present.
The debate around the 13th Amendment takes up much of Lincoln’s running time, and there are stretches where it seems like the film wants to demonstrate how history gets decided not on battlefields, but in cramped quarters filled with bellowing men. As with Amistad, Spielberg sometimes seems determined to make history come alive by focusing on its least naturally cinematic elements. Still, it’s impossible for Spielberg to make an uncinematic film. With longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, he creates stunning interior compositions of deep shadows and piercing rays of light, only occasionally interrupting the debates and maneuvering for stunning scenes like a presidential visit to a corpse-strewn battlefield that erases the distance between the corridors of power and those who fight and die to enact the goals decided within those corridors.
Spielberg also packs the margins with telling details, like the way Lincoln’s son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) is fixated on daguerreotypes of slave children, or a brief exchange between the president and his wife’s freed-slave confidant Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) in which he admits how little he knows about the people he’s fighting to free, while she reveals that her happiness at the potential end of slavery comes tempered by her inability to imagine a future for African-Americans not informed by the oppression of the past. In that instance, it’s almost possible to see the weight of history land on Lincoln’s shoulders.
Day-Lewis captures both Lincoln’s human side and the qualities that turned him into an icon in his own lifetime, portraying the charisma that made him such an effective politician as he wins over rooms with folksy stories that smuggle sharp points, and uses his personal charm to bend others to his will. But it brings him back to Earth in fraught scenes with Mary Todd (Sally Field), and moments that reveal the personal toll exacted by all the bloodshed and conflict, a burden Day-Lewis conveys more through body language than through words.
Lincoln doesn’t exactly underutilize Day-Lewis, but his performance is so strong, squaring with the Lincoln of history books while also creating a recognizably human character, that the film suffers when its focus drifts elsewhere. It doesn’t help that it only makes occasional attempts to tie the story of the 13th Amendment to Lincoln’s own evolving views on race. And the moments with Lincoln and his family are underdeveloped. Day-Lewis’ time with McGrath is unfailingly touching—particularly to those who know the child’s fate—but Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s scenes as Robert Todd Lincoln end up going nowhere, and the script gives Mary Todd a speech about how she fears she’ll be remembered only for her instability, but barely gives her moments that aren’t defined by her instability. That said, Lincoln is built around a magnetic Day-Lewis turn, and the film is a memorable, sometimes stirring look at how even the most righteous bill must struggle, and even cheat, to become a law. It demands a bigger stage than the one it’s given here.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Lincoln’s Spoiler Space.