For the seven or eight Americans that may be out there who still haven’t seen Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, be forewarned. This is not a sprawling Spielberg epic, either as a look at the life of Abraham Lincoln or as a broad analysis of the institution of slavery in the United States. Rather, this is a film mostly about politics, the ways politics can be used (for better or worse) to advance an issue, and the very real humans who carry out said politics. To be sure, the movie focuses on Lincoln. But it is very specific in time frame to Lincoln’s quest to get the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) passed through the House of Representatives and (based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals) the story of how it got done.
It is this focus that is largely the strength of the movie. In many ways, the easy way out for Spielberg could have been to do a piece of melodrama exploring the absolute black mark of slavery on America. But his choice to mostly ignore the background of slavery (and even, largely, Lincoln’s background) and dive right into a specific moment in time, as well as a very precise, strategic process, makes for a gripping film despite the endgame being known by everyone in the theater. The movie ultimately becomes a process film and character study.
And it is in this character study where Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln truly shines. It’s pretty hard to imagine a performance that could better strike the combination of subtle brilliance, charisma, leadership, cajoling (gentle and not), public assuredness and private humanness that Lincoln had to navigate during this time than the one Day-Lewis gives. His Lincoln is a man of vision, but also a man that realizes that his hands might have to get a little dirty here and there to reach that vision. And that a little in the moment personal compromise may be necessary to reach the ultimate vision. Day-Lewis is near perfect in the role.
This movie is filled with awesome character performances. From David Straithairn as Secretary of State (and Lincoln right hand man) William Seward, to a surprisingly good Tommy Lee Jones as hardcore abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, to James Spader as a rascal-y (but key) lobbyist, all the way down to Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, just to name a few, all the performances feel spot on and in the moment (the moment being the mid-1860s). One of the ways the movie establishes the human-ness of these characters is with what is a surprising amount of comedy peppered throughout the story. As we left the theater, I only half-jokingly referred to Lincoln as the comedy event of the season. It really was very funny in many sections. And the humor mostly worked. There is always a tendency to mythologize big moments in history like this, and the little moments of levity between characters helped in a huge way in bringing you into the room when key moments were going on. The weight of the moment is never lost, but there had to be moments where the pressure was felt by those making it all happen way back when, and they either had to let off some steam or even once in a while lose their tempers.
All the back room wheeling and dealing is there in the movie. And, again, it’s masterful in the ways it presents the business of politics being carried out. Maybe you grab a few needed votes with a little “patronage”. Maybe you snag a couple by making things personal for people. Maybe you sway some people with shame. Maybe you appeal to their morality, or logic, or promises of power. Maybe you just threaten them. This movie presents Lincoln as a master of politics, almost always seeming to know what buttons to push on what person just when he needs to. I saw the movie with a row full of folks who work in politics, and I could tell they were all geeking out to it all. I really felt like one of the messages Spielberg wanted to get across in doing this story in the way he decided to was that in a representative republic like the one we live in, politics need not be a dirty word. Politics is often simply the way the process works, and worked properly, politics can be a very powerful force for good, giving voice to those who may not otherwise have a voice. It was actually very inspiring to watch the story of a group of people elected by the people that took their responsibilities with the seriousness with which the times demanded. You’d have to be blind and deaf to not catch the screaming message being sent to today’s politicians by this movie.
It’s funny, in a way, to call a Steven Spielberg film about the abolition of slavery a good little movie. But that’s pretty much what this is. It’s ultimately a solid little procedural and character study. Its flaws lie largely in not doing enough, and maybe not quite taking it all seriously enough. I felt at times that, while it was a nice take on the politics of the day, the tentacles of the movie didn’t really dig deeply enough. It felt at times like we were just sort of scratching the surface of what must have really been going on behind closed doors. The fighting and debates had to be more vicious than were even portrayed. And while the humor in the movie did a lot to humanize the characters, at times it felt like the comedy was taken a step or two too far, diminishing the seriousness of the historical moment in sections. These are kind of nitpicking points, as this is a very good, interesting take on this moment in Lincoln’s legacy. But it would have been nice to see Spielberg go a little further and really run with the politics angle. Dig a little deeper. Tell some nastier stories.
Having said that, see this movie. It’s worth it at the very least to be reminded of what a great leader Lincoln was. And also to be reminded that the great leaders are still, at their core, humans. At times in this film, Lincoln is literally just a guy walking around his house, a guy telling stories to make a point, or a guy sharing a moment of empathy with a wounded soldier. At the same time, he is a guy with great vision and leadership that did a masterful job of leading powerful, often doubting, leaders to do the right thing. Lincoln is a well done, original take on a great moment in American history.