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The opening scene of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln depicts a Civil War battle scene: scrappy, muddy, bayonet-to-bayonet fighting, a brutal slog over contested terrain. The rest of the film concerns something equally scrappy, muddy and messy: politics, specifically, the hard-fought battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery in the United States.
Based in part on the book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Goodwin, Lincoln is less a traditional biopic of our sixteenth president than a snapshot of one specific episode in his story—his last few months of life, at the start of his second term as U.S. president and in the final days of the Civil War. As the film begins, Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis, in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated role) is visiting Union troops and hears a handful of soldiers recite excerpts of what had already become an iconic presidential oration: the Gettysburg Address. The president—haggard, war-weary, solemn—listens intently as a black soldier recites the speech's final line as he marches back to join his regiment: "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom …"
This preface appropriately sets up the film's main conflict: Lincoln's efforts to make good on that "new birth of freedom" by convincing enough congressmen in the House of Representatives to vote in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln's conviction on the matter is evident from the start: he believes abolishing slavery is a necessary step to move the country forward in unity. But politics being the complicated game that it is, conviction alone won't accomplish the goal. A good leader also needs skill in forging alliances, making deals, and charismatically bargaining with the other side to give and take for the common good. In other words: political skill. And Lincoln had it in spades.
One of the fascinating strengths of Lincoln is the way that it turns the nitty-gritty, inelegant work of politics into utterly compelling, even inspiring, drama. At a time when Americans are more cynical than ever about Congress and the partisan politics of no-compromise belligerence that threaten to pilot the nation over ominous "cliffs," a film like Lincoln is helpful. It reminds us that amazing things can emerge from democracy even in the most divided of times. The country was extremely divided in 1865, and the tone in Washington wasn't exactly civil (back then, politicians hurled insults like "you fatuous nincompoop!" at each other during House debates). And yet, with the guidance of Lincoln and the shrewd political maneuvering of his cabinet, enough votes were secured to get the amendment passed. Spielberg's film is a captivating document of history, yes; but it's also a reminder that working across party lines is not weak capitulation. On the contrary, it can birth revolutionary, healing change.
As much as Lincoln is about political process, it is also (obviously) about the man himself: Honest Abe. The beauty of this film is that it maneuvers effortlessly between the legislative drama and the intimate moments where we get glimpses—thanks to Day-Lewis' remarkable performance—into the personality and character of Lincoln and his family. Much of the "iconic Lincoln" is on display here: the tall, lanky man with a scraggly beard and top hat; the unpolished frontier boy with log cabin roots (Lincoln puts his own wood logs in the fireplaces of the Oval Office). But as portrayed by Day-Lewis, he's also a natural born storyteller and jokester, an individualist who values quiet time alone and has strained relationships with members of his own family. He's a dignified man who is sober-minded and soft-spoken, but forceful and impassioned when he needs to be. Above all, he's a commanding presence; when he opens his mouth, people listen.
Screenwriter Tony Kushner wisely creates plenty of breathing room in the script for Day-Lewis to really sink his teeth into the Lincoln persona. There are great scenes of Lincoln in meetings with his cabinet, where he effortlessly rambles in a manner that is half courtroom lawyering and half grandfatherly storytime, with an eloquence of language that feels like a cross between Shakespeare and Mark Twain. He's a president who is as likely to refer to "flub-dubs" and "Tammany Hall hucksters" as he is to quote Euclid.
It's the quieter moments, however, that moved me the most; the moments when Lincoln isn't politicking or posturing, but reflecting. Grieving. Wondering why he was chosen to lead the nation through its darkest hour. "Doyou think wechoose to be born?" he asks one of aides in a particularly existential moment, "or arewefitted to thetimes we'reborn into?"
Though Lincoln's Christian faith isn't explicitly noted in the film, it is certainly clear that there is a higher truth guiding his convictions, a sovereign God who has entrusted him with an important role in an important time. Lincoln assumes this responsibility with deep reverence and humility. He is a humble man whose grief over the depth of loss his country has suffered is written all over his face—in the aged lines of his brow, in his dark, grave eyes. Like most presidents at the end of a term in office, he is grayer and more worn down by the end. And yet his resolve isn't shaken. It's a testament to the immense skill of Day-Lewis that his version of Lincoln feels at once familiar and new—consistent with how we imagined Lincoln and yet embodied in a way we've never quite seen: Lincoln the dad, the husband, the deal-maker, the joke-teller.
Spielberg shows us with Lincoln not only that he continues to be a master of epic filmmaking but also that he is a great actor's director. Day-Lewis anchors the film but he is just one of a number of excellent actors who make up the ensemble cast. As Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field perfectly inhabits the famously unstable first lady, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is entirely believable as Robert, the college-aged son of the Lincolns who desperately wishes to fight in the war. The various political players are aptly performed by a who's who of top-notch Hollywood actors, with the standout being Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist leader Thaddeus Stevens, for whom the Thirteenth Amendment is the career capstone of a life's work campaigning against slavery.
Artistically, Spielberg is at the top of his game. His usual collaborators are in fine form. John Williams' gorgeous score is mature and understated when it could have so easily overpowered the film's intimate ambiance. The excellent cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is similarly understated, in muted tones of greys, blues, and browns (with the occasional burst of red, white and blue). Spielberg's art directors, production designers and costume designers perfectly capture the look and feel of 1865 Washington. It's a place where canes and corsets prevail, handlebar moustaches are grown unironically, and everything is just a little bit creaky and covered in dust, fireplace soot, and tobacco smoke.
Lincoln is a masterpiece of period filmmaking, immersing the viewer in a pivotal period in American history through the eyes of one of its most iconic figures. From the acting to the language to the costumes (of course Lincoln wore a shawl on those cold nights in the White House!), nothing feels false in this film. For a filmmaker like Spielberg—who has been known to over-sentimentalize his material—Lincoln represents an impressively mature, restrained work. Apart from a few too many endings (Spielberg's Achilles heel), it's a very focused, concise treatment of a huge topic.
The film is bookended by two of Lincoln's iconic speeches, opening with the aforementioned Gettysburg Address and ending with the iconic "with malice toward none, with charity for all" section from Lincoln's second inaugural address. The latter—with its resolve to "strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds"—builds on the hopes of the former, with its desire to launch a "new birth of freedom" that will justify the blood shed by so many. In these two speeches we see how tragic and yet how inspirational is the story of Lincoln. He did much as president to bind up the nation's wounds, and yet he died well before he could see the full legacy of the work in which he and others labored.
We see that legacy today, however. And Spielberg's beautiful film helps us see it more clearly than ever.
For parents to consider
Lincoln is rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language. It is a great film for the almost whole family; little ones may be disturbed by scenes of war carnage and violence. But aside from that and some strong language, it's a clean, family-friendly film, an excellent, compelling look into an important era in American history. It should offer much for families and students of all ages to discuss.