Steven Spielberg’s newest work, “Lincoln,” is not a civil war movie. It is also not a complete account of the life of the sixteenth president. Viewers looking for either will likely be disappointed. The movie is, however, a generally historically accurate, sometimes humorous, and dark study of Abraham Lincoln, the 13th Amendment, and Lincoln’s efforts to get the House of Representatives to pass that legislation.
The movie traces a four month period, from January 1865 to April 1865, focusing primarily on Lincoln’s month long effort to obtain the necessary votes for the House to pass the 13th Amendment (20 Democrats need to be recruited, while all Republicans must stand together for abolition.) Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) approves any method short of direct bribery,and sends Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) off to find unsavory characters to offer patronage jobs to lame-duck Democrats. Meanwhile, he strives to keep his own party and his own cabinet from falling into chaos. This means orchestrating peace talks for the Conservative faction, led by Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), who just want the Civil War to end without alienating the Radical faction, led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who want to see the South punished.
Though the political juggling forms the plot’s background, the movie would be severely lacking without its side-plots. The Lincoln family still struggles with the death of young Willie Lincoln in 1862. Mary Todd Lincoln’s (Sally Field) continued grief is especially visible, but the youngest Lincoln boy Tad (Gulliver McGrath) and the president himself also grapple with the situation. The eldest Lincoln boy Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) desires to leave his education and enlist, over the strenuous objections of his parents. The Civil War is still in full swing, and Lincoln haunts the War Department telegraph office and pardons deserters at 3:40 am.
The film is a testament to everyone involved in the 13th Amendment’s passage, the Union’s victory, and Lincoln’s eventual assassination. The film creates suspense and connects viewers to the characters. By the time Lincoln heads for Ford’s Theatre, the viewer wishes he would simply stay at the White House and keep working.
The film’s screenplay, written by Tony Kushner, is based off of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s acclaimed book “Team of Rivals,” focusing on Lincoln’s success at establishing political compromise. Fitting for a movie based on a history book, the film paid attention to detail with respect to historical accuracy. From Abraham Lincoln’s voice to Robert Lincoln’s mustache, the movie worked hard to be accurate.
Of course, as in any biopic, the greatest burden rests on the star’s shoulders. Day-Lewis fills Lincoln’s considerably sized shoes quite well, bringing even relatively small details to life. The viewer rather feels Abraham Lincoln has walked onto the screen. He succeeds in balancing the many paradoxes of Lincoln – a man who was intelligent, but only minimally educated, a man who told funny stories, but also grappled with depression, and a man who had opposed war in the 1840’s, but then led the country into its bloodiest war to date.
The supporting cast deserves accolades as well. Field provides Mary Todd Lincoln with a sympathy and depth not always found in accounts of Mary Todd Lincoln. Jones’ portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens, and the lengths he too will go to pass the amendment sometimes threatens to steal the show. Likewise, Seward’s men from Albany offer a bit of light comedy to an otherwise serious situation.
“Lincoln” does not, however, completely ignore the darker aspects of the period or its subjects. Most of the characters may be abolitionists, but that does not mean they support equal rights for African-Americans. In fact, most all save the Radical Republicans are vocally against this and even the president is rather hesitant. For the modern viewer, this aspect can be distinctly uncomfortable. Much of the plot pertains to “Honest Abe’s” efforts in exploiting the spoils system. Lincoln is also shown to be far from perfect at home, especially in his relationships with Robert and Tad.
Though “Lincoln” has many positive points, it is not a perfect film. Much of the material after the House passes the amendment is unnecessary and detracts from some of the film’s focus, probably with the goal of generating more emotion in the viewer. Additionally, some viewers may agree with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s (Bruce McGill) complaint “You’re going to tell another one of your stories! I can’t stand to hear another one of your stories!”