With Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, James Spader. Written by Tony Kushner. Directed by Stephen Spielberg. Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language. 149 minutes.
This reviewer has not been a fan of director Stephen Spielberg, often referring to him as the Cecil B. DeMille of his generation and not meaning it as a compliment. For all his craftsmanship – and he is unquestionably a brilliant craftsman – his storytelling has often been childlike and simplistic, even with important and serious films like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List.” It is in this context that it must be admitted that LINCOLN is one of the very best films of 2012.
Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, this is less a biography of Lincoln than a historical drama about a major turning point in American history. Our focus is not the Civil War, although that looms over the proceedings, but the battle in the House of Representatives over the proposed 13th Amendment to the Constitution which would outlaw slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation had treated slaves as wartime property and Lincoln feared if the war ended the South might demand to have their “property” reinstated. Banning slavery for good would end that.
The German chancellor Otto von Bismarck is reported to have said that laws are like sausages – it is better not to see them being made. That is what we see here. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis in an outstanding performance) wants the House to pass the 13th Amendment, but knows that the Conservative Democrats oppose him and that the radical Republicans led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones in an equally impressive turn) are more likely to lose votes than gain them. Yes, that’s right, the Republicans were the flaming liberals and the Democrats were the arch-conservatives. It was a different time.
Lincoln will do whatever is necessary to get the votes he needs. His Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), gets some unscrupulous fellows led by one W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) to cajole and bribe some of the representatives with promises of jobs and other plums. Meanwhile, Stevens has to be convinced not to give a fiery abolitionist speech declaring that blacks and whites are equal but that he simply wants to end slavery. In effect he is being asked to lie about his own views in order to get some borderline votes from members who might disapprove of slavery but still think of blacks as inferior.
Some of this is very funny indeed. Lincoln has a penchant to meander into anecdotes and at one point, his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), throws up his hands at having to hear yet another story instead of getting to the point. Some of it is deadly serious. The South has sent a delegation to discuss a possible end to the war which will mess up the plans if it happens to soon. Yet the support of power-broker Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) depends on Lincoln taking such talks seriously. At the White House, Lincoln’s wife Mary (an excellent Sally Field) is still mourning the loss of one child and afraid that their son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) will be sacrificed in the war.
“Lincoln” is about how our iconic 16th president juggled all these competing demands as well as his internal pressures and instincts in guiding the House – and, ultimately, the nation – to do the right thing. As history it is fascinating and as entertainment it is superb. With a remarkable cast, a tight and sharp script, and a sure hand on the helm, it is one of those rare films that was designed to be “great” that turns out actually to be so.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.