Watching Steven Spielberg's film about Abraham Lincoln's political maneuverings to pass the amendment to abolish slavery, I was struck mostly by the sly and open resonance with our current times that screenwriter Tony Kushner achieves as he portrays this specific episode in Lincoln's life.
The movie opens to scenes of Civil War carnage. Steven Spielberg stages a writhing field of brutal violence where Americans fight against each other not only with firearms and blades but with their bare hands. 600,000 Americans died in this bloody conflict, which was, ultimately, about the moral essence of the country. One cannot help but ponder, whether in our day and age, now that the ideological differences of the two main political parties stand in greater contrast than they ever have (even if their allegiance to corporate interests is basically the same), if we will not reach a stage in which we may go literally to war over the kind of country we are meant to be. I personally am rooting for New York City to secede, and to hell with the red states. There is no small irony in the fact that Abraham Lincoln belongs to the Republican party and that the Democrats are the villains in this story. We should thank providence for TV and the internet, which keep enough of us numbed and misinformed, and mostly disinclined to violently eliminate the other side, even as they help raise the cacophony of mutual incomprehension.
Lincoln is a rich, intelligent history lesson on how change is achieved through politics, how compromises and negotiation are necessary in order to make giant strides. Kushner gives President Lincoln a free pass in trying to buy congressmen off in order to pass his amendment. By any means necessary is nice and even humorous when the end is lofty, but I'm afraid that's not how it works the other way around. This resonance applies to Barack Obama and the way in which he has tried, with various degrees of middling success, to make some changes himself. Obama is no Lincoln. No one is. My sense is that Kushner is instructing him to take a lead from Lincoln's playbook and slyly, whether by moving oratory or skillful maneuvering, enact the reforms that need to get enacted.
Spielberg directs the very wordy, literate material with his customary emotional force and splashes of comic relief; some of it a tad broad, if welcome. He frames Kushner's barrage of language with elegance and restraint, and keeps it moving along, slowly but surely. In this he is aided by an enormous performance by Daniel Day Lewis, who at this point is alone in his niche of playing greater than life characters by making them greater than life. To become Abraham Lincoln (he looks uncannily like him), he brings out his entire arsenal of acting wherewithal. The lumbering gait, the schlumpy clothes, a high pitched voice with a hypnotic musical cadence and what I imagine is a perfect Midwestern accent of the times. But as he fusses over the technical aspects, Day Lewis also provides a lively, sexy intelligence and emotional power in the soul of the character. His Lincoln likes to tell stories, has a folksy sense of humor, which he deploys to disarm, quotes easily from Shakespeare, thinks like a lawyer, is a good listener, asks people questions, and is warm and open, yet distant and inscrutable at the same time. Day Lewis is utterly convincing, compelling, and heroic. Thanks to this performance millions of people will develop a huge crush on Abraham Lincoln. He brings to pulsing life what nobody is ever going to bother reading in a wikipedia entry, much less in a history book. If I have one qualm, is that I would have liked to see something less avuncular, more flinty about him, but it is a towering achievement.
The cast is superb. Tommy Lee Jones kills as Thaddeus Stevens, the formidable anti-slavery advocate. He has some great lines to utter and he does it with precision and relish (I predict supporting actor Oscar nom). Sally Field is great as Mary Lincoln. I know people like her. She's a depressive, intelligent, intense woman with not a small chip on her shoulder at having to sit on the sidelines of history. Who is not happy to see James Spader, John Hawkes, Lee Pace, Tim Blake Nelson, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Michael Stuhlbarg, and a bunch of other whiskered, wonderful character actors nail their roles? Women too: Gloria Reuben, Julie White, Elizabeth Marvel, S. Epatha Merkerson). It's a character actor dream cast.
Spielberg only veers into the maudlin fitfully. Soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address to President Lincoln seems a bit ham handed at the beginning, but then the movie thankfully settles into political strategizing. The epic music by John Williams stirs the feelings of righteousness in the audience, but it's a bit too obvious in moments of levity. There is strained, unconvincing business about father and sons. Lincoln's young son is mostly there as a symbolic presence. His older son, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, insists on going to war, even as he is confronted, in a wonderfully staged scene, with a cartload of severed limbs. In this instance, the political seems far more interesting than the personal.
The movie builds very slowly with rich and copious detail, painting a panorama of the historical moment, but by the time the vote comes to be passed, Spielberg stages it with great verve and tension. It's a cliffhanger.
I think it curious that Kushner and Spielberg refrain from showing Lincoln's assassination (I guess they don't want to give anybody ideas). But there is a scene where they tease the audience with it, which I don't think works. I am not an advocate of violence in movies, and there is no shortage of the violent face of war in this film, but violence is a particularly American predilection, and this demureness, although dignified, takes away from the political historical resonance that Kushner so skillfully embroiders. The murder of president Lincoln doesn't come as a shock, as it should; it comes as an afterthought. However, the characterization of Lincoln is so magnificent that it makes his assassination horribly tragic to contemplate, as close to the bone as when it has happened in more recent times to political figures like Martin Luther King or the Kennedys.
In the end, as we watch Lincoln, we cannot help but think that we just inaugurated a Black president's second term. Abraham Lincoln would be pleased. But this movie smartly avoids self-congratulation. In one scene, after the amendment is passed, Lincoln asks a Black woman if her people are ready for what is to come. He knows racial harmony is nowhere in sight. I did not understand her verbose response, but it is the question which we should ask ourselves again and again. Are we ready for what our rights and freedoms really mean, for keeping them, and defending them from those who hate them?
One cannot help but think after watching the thrilling crescendo of the results of the actual passage of the 13th Amendment, that it wasn't until the 1960s that Americans had to rise again to fight the deeply enduring racism of the South, and that even today we have racist taunts at our president and a society that still oppresses and profits unconscionably from Black, and now brown people, by sending them to jail in appalling numbers. Abraham Lincoln's work is not finished.