Lobbying for Equality in the Midst of the Civil War
Films with titles of their main character are usually about heroes, usually of the genus super, the men in tights and mask that garner both tabloids and imaginations. The other types that fall through the cracks are generally about political personas- J. Edgar, Malcolm X, Elizabeth, to name a few- and their more personal development, stories centered on the individual and the people that happen to surround them. Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s latest mesmerizing installation, fits into this category on a very basic level, but secularizes itself from the standard egocentric biopics.
Instead of an intense consummate lens on the 16th President of the United States, the narrative arc begins and ends in the last year of the civil war, approximately three months, from January to April. Within that timeframe and what remains the focus of the film, is the ratification of Lincoln’s proposed thirteenth amendment, and his tireless effort to sway the uncertain members of congress toward its passing. So this is not a biopic or a war film, it’s a concise conglomeration of the legislative process, though at two and half hours, that’s probably not the most appealing word.
Yet, while we only really see Lincoln in that final three-month span of his life, we feel like we have known him for much longer. Daniel Day Lewis, who has become an emblem for method acting and film role discernment, plays the President with sage-like profundity, agile and tolerant but weathered and weary. His voice trembles and quakes not with deep bravado but with a shaky legato, and his authoritative moments ring with jolting tremor and admiration. All it takes for his chatty speculative cabinet members to quiet their outright disagreement is a firm smack of the chestnut table from old Abe. The great dictators of time in which he is weary of portraying and others accuse him of so doing had those gruff, masculine outbursts. Lewis, maybe from a personal choice, delivers Lincoln’s leadership without linguistic flare, but with solemnity and wisdom, garnering attention and silence through sporadic, stoic glances followed by a whimsical story.
They range from Ethan Allen to George Washington potty humor, but they demonstrate both his captivating wealth of knowledge and his ability to tie anecdotes with current political trouble. One memorable scene comes in his determination to sway Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to understand the mission of the thirteenth amendment. Stevens, more liberal than any of his counterparts, urges Lincoln to go all the way for black rights, allowing them suffrage along with freedom. But the President is ready with a reply, explaining through analogy that knowing due north on a compass doesn’t matter if you fall into mud on your way there.
In strong similarity to the political polarity currently inheriting Washington D.C., the Democrats (mostly all against the amendment) and Republicans (those who approved it), whose ideals would have been swapped by today’s party names, call names and lobby, only without corporations behind their backs and in their ears. Aiding Lincoln are his Secretary of State (David Strathairn) and congressman James Ashley (David Costabile) while the persuading operatives in the field are a motley three played with animated punch from James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson. Lee Pace as representative Fernando Wood fires the insults on behalf of the Democrats, a loathing character eventually given his oratory comeuppance by Stevens, who likens him to a reptile.
The two may as well have been in Parliament, facing each other directly, just yards between them. Their feet in the ground, Lincoln is wary his only chance to ratify is through the less enthusiastic Democrats. He is hard-pressed however when he learns of a possible peace treaty with the Confederates through correspondence with war general Ulysses S. Grant (an underused Jared Harris). Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) moves the peace progress forward by inducing representatives of north and south to continually meet, but wind of their meeting would mean opposition to the amendment. Lincoln’s advisors probe and push him to delay the progress, to end battle and save fathers and sons. The Commander in Chief is wary of the cause, its temporary blows, its progressive nature.
Spielberg brings back the smoky wartime pastiche, utilized in his earlier work like last year’s beauteous War Horse and more hauntingly in Saving Private Ryan. The only evidenced scenes of battle introduce the film, a preamble dictating the severity of America’s bloodiest war. Similar to unthinkable trench warfare, the union and confederates are displayed brutally in muddy combat, muskets moot except for the bayonet tips. It is impossible to know which man fights for which side, nearly as shocking as Lincoln’s own autonomy in his travels. In carriage or on horseback, no secret service flanks his sides, his tall figure and top hat easy to spot from a distance.
Part of that unprotected susceptibility mimics the rawer moments of Lincoln’s personal life, inspiring his humbled depiction. His insistence with his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to not join the army, his domineering conceit to his wife Mary (A brilliant, near-crazy Sally Field),whose fearless retorts create a bridled animosity, promptly explore his public height and internal fatigue. His omnipresent iconography in our currency is not the mark of an egocentric, but a man humbled by his domestic duties, and many times parental confrontations; humanized in gentle fashion.
Lincoln’s skill in negotiating seemingly stems from his familial mitigating as working with both Republicans and Democrats proves burdensome, but reachable. The fact is, while the thirteenth amendment and slavery as a whole become the key issue between both parties, rarely is an African-American shown on screen. Notable exceptions include house servants to Lincoln, but in a certain sense, the film’s mostly white characters demonstrate the deep ideological beliefs in the slow acceptance America has had in appreciating black people’s equality.
Based off the 2005 bestseller “Team of Rivals,” from Doris Kearns Goodwin, and adapted by Tony Kushner, Lincoln finds its heart in its dialogues and speeches, the grand evidence of democracy at work. The rallying of nicknames in boisterous form in the capital and the clandestine linguistic nudging outside produce a contrast smoothed over with appropriate chattiness. It meanders but never becomes a struggle for clarity, more intent to keep an audience emotionally involved than solving names and places in a mental jigsaw. Like Argo, Ben Affleck’s widely enthralling political drama, there is a similar sense of urgency even with the historical roadmap laid before us. It is Hollywood, in the un-dazzling muted color scheme of the rural mid-Atlantic. When? why? and how? are often more interesting than what?
That is the achievement of this masterful work. Spielberg has created a portrait within a narrative that doesn’t really even have a distinct ending point. Near its finale, we go back in time to listen to Abraham Lincoln in his second Inaugural speech with the same awe and intensity as those surrounding him. In that moment, he ceases to be a caricature of history, and instead the captivating President we proclaim he was. Four score and seven years from now, we may still be talking about this film.