directed by Steven Spielberg, 2012
“History prefers legends to men,” or at least that’s what our sixteenth president tells us at the beginning of a recent biopic. Yep, you know just the one I’m talking about: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Whereas that film immediately loses sight of its mission statement amidst scenes of a middle-aged, stovepipe-hat-adorned Lincoln fighting the undead atop exploding trains, Steven Spielberg’s more historically accurate Lincoln accomplishes what seems even more impossible: It uncovers the real Honest Abe.
Spielberg mercifully spares us the womb-to-tomb treatment, choosing instead to focus on the last four months of the president’s life, in which time he skillfully maneuvered the passage of a constitutional amendment banning slavery through the House of Representatives.
History often grants itself the aura of inevitability. This is certainly the case with the Thirteenth Amendment, which feels like the logical narrative conclusion to the slavery debate that precipitated the Civil War. Lincoln, in turn, has become the deity who bequeathed that inevitability to us.
Spielberg quashes any notion of godliness immediately. We first meet Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) perched on a makeshift bench in a military camp. The camera first hesitates to show him directly, instead directing attention to four soldiers (two black, two white) gathered at his side. He looks at them beatifically as they recite portions of the Gettysburg Address, but not so fast: They don’t forget he’s flesh and bone. The black soldiers remind him that they are paid less than their white counterparts, that they lack any chance of promotion, that their right to vote is one hundred years away. “You have springy hair for a white man,” one remarks, obliterating any remaining barriers between the people’s president and the people. Lincoln just smiles. It’s not a perfect scene—it feels almost silly in light of a violent opening battle scene that’s already evoked comparisons to Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day—but it gets the idea across.
The script, by playwright Tony Kushner, deserves credit for bringing Lincoln back down to earth, for instance capturing his penchant for homespun anecdotes. “I don’t think that I can bear to hear another one of your stories,” a cabinet member moans. This is also a man complex in his relations, capable of bonding instantly with the soldiers yet distant from his eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and uncomprehending of his unstable wife Mary (a fantastic Sally Field).
But it’s the transformation undertaken by Day-Lewis that is easily the most remarkable aspect of the film. His Lincoln is as soothing as his Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) was ferocious, as open as his Cecil Vyse (A Room with a View) was priggish. With his reedy voice and relaxed bearing, Day-Lewis has somehow taken the Lincoln of our collective imagination and brought him to life.
Once in Washington, Lincoln the mortal politician is plainly in sight. Although he’s determined to secure the Thirteenth Amendment before war’s end, he still needs to get approval from the House, where its passage is anything but ensured. William Seward (David Strathairn), Lincoln’s Secretary of State and closest confidante, attempts to dissuade him—after all, why expend so much precious political capital on something bound to fail?—but it’s to no avail.
Those expecting a Lincoln hagiography may be surprised to find something more akin to a low-key political thriller. Once the president secures the backing of the Radical Republican faction led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), he still needs twenty Democrats to cross the aisle. Lincoln appeals to some of their better natures but relies heavily on patronage. Employing a trio of political operatives—played by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and James Spader, a standout—he seduces wavering Democrats with promises of far-flung postmaster positions. As Stevens later remarks, “the greatest measure in the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
A film that’s essentially about moral debates and vote chasing sounds admittedly less than enthralling, but in truth the heated rhetoric of the House puts any besotted Real Housewife to shame. Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), the leader of the Copperhead Democrats, alternately refers to Lincoln as “Abraham Africanus I” and “the tyrant,” while Stevens in turn dismisses Wood as a “fatuous nincompoop.” C-SPAN would kill for this kind of action.
Of course, in showing the nitty-gritty of the legislative process, Spielberg and Kushner reveal some of the complexities that animated the president. We understand his intentions, but this Lincoln isn’t quite the Honest Abe of lore. Not only does he use patronage, but he essentially lies to Congress about the existence of peace talks with the Confederates. Indeed, moral murkiness pervades everything. In order to get the amendment passed, Stevens—one of the most outspoken abolitionists in Congress—declares his allegiance to be with legal equality rather than racial equality. A supporter tells him how this equivocation nauseates him, which Stevens shrugs off, noting only that the feeling “must be unpleasant.” The expression on his normally undemonstrative, craggy face, however, shows him thunderstruck by the ease with which he’s denied his most vital belief.
For Lincoln, if any moment of his political career has warranted some political maneuvering, it’s this one. He can’t envision a return to an antebellum existence in which North and South coexist uneasily. As he tells his cabinet, “Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment,” blood he’s seen on too many battlefields. When Robert insists that his father allow him to join the military, it only reinforces the president’s conviction that this war must be transformative.
Though it lacks the kinetic energy that defines so many of Spielberg’s works, this is one of the director’s most impressive films in years. It’s also the one most reliant on its performances, with even small roles filled by the likes of Jackie Earle Haley and Jared Harris. He’s also managed to avoid the schmaltz and by-the-numbers quality that colored War Horse and the most recent Indiana Jones adventure.
Which is not to say the film is perfect. As it draws to a close, there’s a definite sense it’s overstayed its welcome. Once the House approves the amendment, the film wanders, with the inclusion of some events feeling perfunctory. This is the case with the surrender at Appomattox, and even with the assassination. Obviously history can’t be changed, but it can be presented differently: Sofia Coppola, for instance, ended her Marie Antoinette not with the queen’s death but with a stark shot of a vandalized Versailles. The point was made all the same.
There is a natural ending to this film, however. As Lincoln readies himself for his fatal date night at Ford’s Theatre, he remarks “it’s time to go, but I’d rather stay.” Leaving the White House, his form gradually becomes a silhouette, one that’s already casting a long shadow across history. It’s the moment in which the man returns to being a legend.