Here we are in 2012, and Steven Spielberg is still surprising me. Because Lincoln has been released one week after a presidential election, everyone is inevitably dissecting his movie for political content and its relevance to today’s issues. What I find is that this take on our nation’s 16th president offers a ringing defense of moderation, pragmatism, realpolitik, compromise, and other neither-hot-nor-cold-but-just-right virtues that don’t ordinarily lend themselves to ringing defenses. This is a bold thing for Spielberg to do, and given that our current president’s re-election has been widely interpreted as a victory for sensible centrism over extremism, it’s incredibly timely. I just wish the resulting movie weren’t so dry.
Most of the film takes place in January 1865, as Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has little time to celebrate his recent re-election because of the urgent items on his agenda before his re-inauguration in March. The president wants to push the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment to the Constitution through Congress. The trouble is, Lincoln is also as eager to end the war as the people are, and ending the war would drain away Congressional support for the amendment. Close advisors such as Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) tell him he can’t have both peace and the amendment, and even Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) counsels her husband to pick a more winnable fight. Yet the president presses on, reasoning that the recalcitrant House of Representatives is full of lame-duck Democrats who have lost their seats but are still in office until March and can be persuaded to vote yes on the amendment now that they no longer have to answer to their voters.
Ho hum, here’s another great performance by Day-Lewis. We’re so used to him turning in superlative work that we’re no longer surprised by it. With ordinary citizens, he’s a folksy man of the people, relating to farmers and telegraph operators by cracking jokes and telling anecdotes. With his advisors, we see a different and more forceful man, dragging his reluctant Cabinet with him as he resolves to end slavery once and for all. Day-Lewis is a London native who has nevertheless played an indelible succession of American characters, and Lincoln makes a neat flipside to There Will Be Blood in the context of his career. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie, Day-Lewis plays the quintessential American as a greedy, entrepreneurial psychopath. Here he plays the quintessential American as Lincoln, the man who extends power and freedom to everyone, regardless of race, color, or creed. The Great Emancipator’s wisdom, compassion, and fierce determination tempered by cool judgment and an eye for politics’ mundane realities are all plain to see in Day-Lewis’ sage performance.
Spielberg reunites with his Munich screenwriter Tony Kushner, adapting a small section of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography Team of Rivals. Conscientiously, they outline the political climate for us. We see Lincoln absorbing criticism from his own party for not going far enough, chiefly from Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who holds the politically unpalatable view that African-Americans should be given the vote and full equal rights. We know that he’s ultimately right, and yet he must hold his tongue not to jeopardize the amendment, and so he does despite some intense baiting by a young Democrat (Lee Pace) during the House floor debate.
We also get scenes from Lincoln’s family life that feel like they belong in another movie, as well as comic relief from a team of operators (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) quietly dangling patronage jobs to swayable Democrats in exchange for votes and a funny scene when Stevens strong-arms a Democrat and fellow Pennsylvanian (Boris McGiver) into voting for the amendment. As fine as these are, we’re missing the music here. The movie stops to examine legislative details and keeps the president on the sidelines as the amendment pushes its way through the House. Spielberg gives us little of the acclaimed public speaker and debater that Lincoln was known to be, and the soaring rhetoric that Lincoln employed would have been exactly what was needed to lift this movie off the ground.
This is Spielberg’s third film about American race relations after The Color Purple and Amistad. Clearly the subject means a great deal to him, our nation’s historic persecution of African-Americans weighing as much on his mind as the global persecution of Jews. For all that, his movies about race don’t seem to rouse him to the same eloquent heights as his movies on Jewish subjects do. Lincoln wrings a fair amount of drama out of the process of passing landmark legislation through Congress and does full justice to the complexity of this untidy business. It still left me unmoved.
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book. Rated PG-13.