Steven Spielberg’s masterful Lincoln might more accurately have been called The 13th Amendment — and while the choice of the more marketable title is easy to understand, the more crucial decision to limit the scope of the film to the last few months of Lincoln’s life, and to focus less on Lincoln himself than on the political machinations of bringing about his most enduring legal legacy, must have been harder to make.
Watching Daniel Day-Lewis’ sublime interpretation of perhaps the most iconic figure in American history, it’s easy to wish that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Munich) had chosen to adapt a greater swath of their source material; namely, the popular historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s study Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which covers Lincoln’s presidency and his working relationships with members of his cabinet, including three who ran against him in his first presidential campaign.
Indeed, given the enduring, quasi-canonical force on our shared idea of the 16th president Day-Lewis’ performance is likely to exert, one could easily wish for a film that covered as much of the story as possible: scenes from Lincoln’s prairie-lawyer days; the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates; Lincoln’s presidential campaign; the beginning of the Civil War; the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation; and, of course, the great speeches — above all the Gettysburg Address.
Such a film might be a more momentous contribution to the iconography of Americana; but the filmmakers rightly judged the scope of Goodwin’s book too broad for a film. The result is almost certainly a better film, at least in some respects. Instead of a biopic, Lincoln is the story of a particular event, not only in Lincoln’s life, but in the life of the nation. In this story, Lincoln plays a decisive but not overwhelming role, and Day-Lewis’ performance, while a big draw, is not the film’s raison d’etre.
This means, among other things, that rather than build up the legendary figure of Lincoln known to posterity, the film opens with the legend, as it were, already in place. Indeed, the film introduces Lincoln chatting with some reverent Union soldiers — two blacks and two whites — while seated in a chair on a podium above them, looking for all the world as if he were posing for the statue in the Lincoln Memorial.
In case there’s any doubt that this opening scene is an act of cinematic mythmaking, one of the black soldiers explains to Lincoln, with solemn pertness, how far blacks have and haven’t come (black soldiers get equal pay, but aren’t eligible for commissions) and lays out an emancipation program for decades to come — after which the soldiers take turns reciting memorized lines from the Gettysburg Address (which, in fact, acquired its rhetorical fame only after Lincoln’s assassination).
Despite this florid opening, Lincoln is deeply engaged in the historical and especially the political complexities of its subject matter. It’s a movie, not a history lesson, but there’s a lot of historical perspective in it. It is talky and information-rich — exhilaratingly so for those, like me, who love such movies; perhaps dry and daunting for others.
The film acknowledges Lincoln’s ambiguous exercise of wartime powers, from the suspension of habeas corpus to the Emancipation Proclamation itself, which Lincoln admits he “hoped was legal” but could only be reasonably confident “wasn’t quite criminal.” (Important issues not addressed include the legitimacy of secession and the justness of the Civil War itself.)
Lincoln is largely concerned with the sordid business of trying to add enough vulnerable Democratic votes to those of the Republicans to amass the supermajority needed to pass the 13th Amendment — if necessary, with threats, offers of positions and other inducements short of direct vote buying. This realpolitik the film approaches with cheery dark humor, as Lincoln’s surrogates, including Secretary of State William Seward (thoughtful, calculating David Strathairn) and Democratic operative W.N. Bilboe (blunt, funny James Spader), labor to pressure the necessary votes to fall into place.
Underlying these ambiguities is the starkness of morality and the natural law, to which both sides appeal. In congressional debate pro-slavery Democrat Fernando Wood declaims that to make blacks equal to white men is “an insult to natural law” — to which the powerful, acid-tongued Republican abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, played by a well-cast Tommy Lee Jones, retorts, “Slavery is the only insult to natural law, you fatuous nincompoop. You insult God!”
The immorality of slavery, for Lincoln, is decisive; the legal issues are secondary, and he does what he believes the needs of the times require. Earlier in the country’s history it had been possible to believe that slavery was for the moment a regrettable necessity that would eventually die away on its own; but by Lincoln’s day that was no longer the case; indeed, slavery seemed poised to expand into the territories. The film’s Lincoln expresses fear that white men’s moral compasses have become ossified through tolerating slavery for so long. It is a diagnosis not hard to apply to our own times, in connection with the evils tolerated today; and while there are still many who denounce the evils of our day, we have no powerful men of Stevens’ or Lincoln’s caliber so committed, above all, to the abolition of abortion.
The role of religion is minimal. Lincoln was a secular man who never joined a church, a deist whose idea of God was remote and unknowable. Yet he also believed in divine Providence, believed that God’s will, however inscrutable, was at work in human affairs, including his own presidency and the conflict of the Civil War. He believed that slavery was morally wrong and came to believe that God was finally bringing slavery to an end in the events of his day.
The film hints at Lincoln’s religious perspective on the conflict only twice, once when he jokingly wishes that God had “chosen an instrument more wieldy than the House of Representatives” and, in the very end, in a brief flashback to the second inaugural address, as Lincoln reflects on Providence and theodicy in connection with slavery and the Civil War.
There are scenes from Lincoln’s personal life, including his affectionate but strained relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln (a grandly unstable Sally Field), on one occasion boiling over into a fight openly broaching the prospect of committing Mary to a madhouse. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Robert Todd Lincoln, spoiling to enlist over the objections of his parents; and 13-year-old Gulliver McGrath as young Tad Lincoln is an avatar for Spielberg’s inner child — crucially so in perhaps the film’s most Spielbergian moment, a wholly novel take on perhaps the most familiar image in Lincoln’s biography.
Black characters are relegated to the sidelines, though S. Epatha Merkerson as Thaddeus Stevens’ housemaid has a crucial, poignant moment at the denouement. Gloria Reuben and Stephen Henderson are positive presences as a pair of White House servants.
Standing over the whole film, of course, is Day-Lewis in his most controlled performance in years. He convincingly comprehends Lincoln’s melancholy and his humor; his self-deprecation and brandishing of authority; his backwoods simplicity and his highly literate verbal dexterity; his moral rectitude and his clear-eyed pragmatism. This Lincoln can make fluent, even humorous, use of elevated language and classical allusions, but also says “ain’t” and can enjoy ribald humor.
Lincoln would make a terrific double feature with one of my favorite films from last year, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, which was about the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination and the trial of a Southern Catholic widow named Mary Surratt for her alleged role in the conspiracy. Although both films offer intelligent, literate takes on their historical subjects, The Conspirator is clear-eyed about the pitfalls of expansive use of executive power and how easily the liberties Lincoln took in order to end slavery can be used to replace the rule of law with any politically desirable end.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Brief depictions of graphic battlefield violence, slain soldiers and amputated limbs; an obscenity, some profane and crude language and racial epithets; a depiction of cohabitation or common-law marriage. Mature teens and up.