“In a hundred years, maybe the vote.” That was the extent of black Americans’ wildest ambitions during the Civil War, looking forward past abolition to the seemingly unthinkable possibility of black military officers, so it is fitting that Spielberg’s semi-biopic of Lincoln and chronicle of the Thirteenth Amendment opens as the presidency of Barack Obama has been confirmed for a second term.
Just after his own re-election, feeling vindicated by the public in his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation more than a year earlier, Abraham Lincoln had to weigh the political plausibility of abolishing slavery against the horror that would be inflicted upon “unborn millions to come” should he fail to act according to his conscience.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Daniel Day Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, David Costabile, Lee Pace, Byron Jennings
After the cloyingly saccharine War Horse and the flippant hollowness of Tintin, director Steven Spielberg returns to form with all the gravity this subject matter deserves, zeroing in on the quest of Lincoln and his associates – some of them, including James Spader’s William N. Bilbo, comically nefarious – for enough assured votes to garner the two-thirds majority necessary to the success of a constitutional amendment.
With support from his Republican compatriots unclear, opposition from the Southern Democrats overwhelmingly vocal, and a peace delegation making overtures on behalf of the Confederate States of America – with whom any treaty would destroy the possibility of abolition – Lincoln has a harrowing balancing act to perform even as he completes a significant philosophical maturation of his own.
Daniel Day Lewis, with two Academy Awards under his belt, is put beyond the reach of praise by this performance. From fierce public oratory to faltering soliloquy, his Lincoln feels so effortlessly authentic – down to his vocal modulation and physical presence – it can only have come from an equally abundant measure of exhausting dedication.
With an immense cast of talented actors – this is Spielberg, after all – the direction wisely minimizes gimmickry to focus on the characters and subtly underscore the action, and composer John Williams follows suit, stretching over 150 minutes roughly the same amount of bombast that accompanied Lincoln’s 150-second theatrical trailer.
Sally Field brings a delicate complexity to the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones, playing Thaddeus Stevens, gets to indulge in the most cathartic, caustically verbose invective this side of the Bard.
Joseph Gordon Levitt is the one actor who feels wasted on his role, but the A-lister’s lack of prominence is hardly a concern amid this panoply, which includes Hal Holbrook (who won an Emmy playing Lincoln in a 1976 TV mini-series), David Strathairn (The Bourne Legacy), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen), Lee Pace (TV’s Pushing Daisies), Jared Harris (Benjamin Button), Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou), and many more.
Watching Lincoln arrive at the idea of “self-evident equality” via Euclid is practically spine-tingling, and the realization dawns that this is the story of something indescribably momentous – a pivot in history. What’s more, this is the history that matters most, a showcase of politics for the greatest possible common good instead of selfish, partisan posturing.
But as much as Lincoln is a worthy portrait of the man and an engrossing glimpse into the past, the same film styled simply as the saga of the Thirteenth Amendment and shorn of its cursory closing bits – it passes up a perfectly good (and almost perfectly Spielbergian) ending in the house of Thaddeus Stevens – would play just as well without doing a disservice either to the great man who oversaw the events it recounts or to the great man portraying him with almost unnatural deftness.