The release of Lincoln, the new film from Steven Spielberg, is intended to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the days leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation — not the recent election — it doesn't try to make a metaphor out of its portrayal of the 16th President, or force comparisons to our current commander-in-chief and the state of the country he's overseeing, but it still couldn't feel more timely.
The Last Four Months of Abraham Lincoln's Life
Written by Tony Kushner, the film covers the last four months in the life of Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), as he battles to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment and bring an end to the Civil War; and up until an overly soft coda, it is a magnificently warts-and-all portrait and appreciation of democracy at work in all its bickering, lively messiness. The difficulty of getting consensus on what's clear now to be the righting of a massive ethical wrong allows for unlikely suspense and drama in what would be, had it existed back then, the domain of C-SPAN.
A Case for the Democratic Process
The stakes are considerable, but Spielberg has no need to convince anyone of the awfulness of slavery. Instead, he makes a case for the democratic process, despite its flaws — as the best way for these decisions to be examined and hammered out, a place for moral purpose to meet practical concerns.
A composition of browns and grays and dark rooms illuminated by dim period lighting, Lincoln opens with two scenes that establish it has little desire to gaze at its subject or era with starry eyes. A glimpse of the war shows men floundering and dying in the mud, jabbing bayonets in each others' guts. (Spielberg has no use, these days, in prettying up battle.) In the scene following, we watch soldiers greet Lincoln, all adoring, though not all content to simply praise: While two young white soldiers gawk over how tall he is, an African-American one questions why there are still no commissioned officers of color as his friend tries to shush him. Lincoln receives and jokes with them all with characteristic unhurried equanimity, a quality that sees him through subsequent larger version of this interaction, in which even those who are firmly on his side have their own requests and additional needs to be pursued.
Lincoln: A Semi-Divine, Flesh-and-Blood Being
With the help of a very good, fundamentally restrained performance from Day-Lewis, Lincoln offers up its protagonist as a flesh-and-blood being while allowing us to understand why his status in the country is already, as one of his officials puts it, "semi-divine." Wielding a folksy charm and remaining even-keeled in the most tense of situations — his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) storms off in frustration at one point when he realizes the President is about to launch into another anecdote — Lincoln's nobility shines through in his unswerving conviction for what is right and his unfussiness about how to achieve it.
Certain that the amendment must go through before the war ends, or risk not getting passed at all, Lincoln has Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) hire a slightly disreputable trio (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) to offer up patronage jobs to the outgoing Democrats in the House of Representatives in exchange for their votes. In his own Republican party, he tries to placate the conservatives, led by Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), who are afraid of chasing away support with "extreme" views on things like freed slaves getting the vote, while winning over the radicals, led by the prickly Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones at his most wonderfully irascible), who consider compromise to be a betrayal of their beliefs about equality.
A Type of Heroism That Runs Counter to the Usual Showy Movie Signifiers
Half the working character actors in Hollywood don wretched period facial hair and show up in small but memorable roles in Lincoln — Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Walton Goggins are just a few — while more famous faces, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Sally Field, show up as son Robert and wife Mary Todd Lincoln, who push and pull their patriarch over Robert's desire to enlist. But this is Day-Lewis' movie, and he does with the meditative inner stillness of his character a wonderful thing — he finds a type of heroism that runs counter to all of the usual showy movie signifiers of such a quality. The climactic vote in Lincoln, a rousing scene in which each congressman calls out his vote to the roar of his colleagues and the observers, takes place with the title character playing quietly with his young son in the White House, having done all he can.
A Work of Legitimate Importance
After months of a presidential campaign that illustrated the United States as a nation in which communication between parties and points of view has largely ceased, Lincoln feels like a work of legitimate importance, and not only because it shows that people did just as much snarky, politicized yelling back in 1865. Spielberg has made a film that shows the legislative process as work but also as an ongoing conversation, one in which individual contact and shifts in perception can add up to gradual change, that argues multiple differing points of view needn't leave the country immobile.
Democracy is such that there will always be those who are displeased with the way votes went, but this was the moment in our history in which we declared that it didn't mean they were allowed to secede and start their own country — that we were going to be in this together, one quarreling, diverse whole united in this national identity. As divided as the present can feel, there's something unaffectedly patriotic about this sentiment, one that lightens this very fine film from within.
Read more on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.