This is the kind of film that, even before seeing, I just knew I was going to like. A biopic of Abraham Lincoln, even one as limited in scope as this, is long overdue and the proven quality of the cast and crew speaks for itself. I’m a political junkie as well as an American Civil War enthusiast, so this film combines two of my favourite passions.
I really enjoyed Lincoln and will praise the many things that deserve it. And while it might not be my favourite film of the year thus far (that honour remains with Les Mis), it runs a very, very close second.
Lincoln is based off Doris Goodwin’s excellent book Team of Rivals, a general account of Lincoln’s life with a specific focus on his nomination for President in 1860 and his relationship with his cabinet during the resulting “War between the States”. Steven Spielberg, getting behind the camera for the first time since the disappointing War Horse, has chosen to limit the scope of the project still, further, to a period that Goodwin only spent a handful of pages on in her 700+ page tome. The year has just turned into 1865, Lincoln has begun his second term, and faces three battles: the fight to end the Civil War with a rapidly disintegrating south, the battle to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery in all its forms “and for all time” and the fractious relationship that he has with his wife Mary and with his oldest son Robert.
While some might wonder at the limited nature of the account considering the title of the movie, I think it is a good solid “snapshot” of Lincoln at his most crucial moments, a period that allows the intermingling of many roles in his lifetime, that allows for discussion and portrayal of his greatest accomplishments and strengths, and that allows for the right story structure to be put into place. We don’t really need to see Lincoln growing up, or getting into politics or getting elected to the office of President. Spielberg has given his audience enough credit to understand the basics of Lincoln’s life story without much elaboration and I applaud him for his choice to limit the narrative focus to a singularly fascinating period of his life.
If this was a weak movie, the lack of “backstory” or a more complete rendition of the life of Lincoln would be major criticisms, but Spielberg, in line with a great cast, has given us a great story, one that fully entertains without ever really dragging too much, or becoming bogged down in a single point or event.
Spielberg accomplishes this by presenting the final months of Lincoln’s life in a trinity of drama and tension. The first, and most major I suppose, is the debate and vote on the 13th Amendment. Lincoln actually takes a back seat in this plot, in favour of his Secretary of State Seward, and the main drama is driven by the excellently portrayed contest between the abolitionist and anti-abolitionists of Congress. The venom and verbal shotguns of Thaddeus Stephens and Fernando Wood make this plot what it is, with Tommy Lee Jones driving it forward at every turn. The tension making is immense, almost on a par with Ben Affleck in Argo, as Spielberg expertly brings us to a climax where, despite the outcome being well known to the audience, you remain on the edge of your seat until the final decision is made.
The best of the supporting performances’ sub-plots are here. Stephens has to operate as a lynchpin for the radicals and the conservatives, showing that compromise is a requirement if slavery is ever going to be done away with. Wood is the southern-sympathising dandy representing everything that is dying out in the north. The trio of political hucksters are the murkier side of Washington politics willing to do anything get the job done. This is the best kind of political drama, one that strips away the regular monotony of speeches and procedure in favour of dramatic declarations, uncertain votes and intense, personal soul-searching by certain characters. It is a messy, occasionally dishonest process, which only heightens the enthralling nature of it. The typical redemptions you would expect – like with William Hutton who invokes the memory of his fallen brother when voting “No”, despite Lincoln’s pleas – do not occur. This is real politics, with pig-headed obstinacy on both sides, with trickery, with muddy motives and frowning consciences. It is an all together better tale for it.
Onto the peace feelers of the south. That plot is where Lincoln himself gets to take centre stage over Congress on a political level. The plot is relatively short and focused almost entirely on Lincoln himself, and his anguish over the bloody fight he is overseeing. An interesting morality discussion (more in a bit) emerges from the calls for peace, or maybe even peaceful integration. Spielberg has made more hay out of this historical event than there maybe was in real life, conveniently leaving out until late on the fact that any Confederate negotiations hinged on recognition of the South as a free nation (and thus, the negotiations were doomed from the start, especially since the Confederacy was already collapsing at that point). But it is still a good story, offering a more sympathetic view of those who favoured peace in the form of an anguished Francis Preston Blair, rather than the hawkish, self-interested Wood and Pendleton.
This plot is all about how much Lincoln can take, from the sight of soldiers marching off to war chanting his name, wounded veterans in hospitals, amputated limbs piling up, casualty lists incoming, and the scattered dead before the siegeworks at Petersburg. He wavers, he stumbles, he almost gives in. The drama here is on Lincoln convincing himself that he and the Union are on the right course, emphatically declared at the conclusion: “Slavery sir? It’s done.” This shows a doubting side of Lincoln that perhaps does not mesh well with the romantic portrayals of him as a decisive leader, but in line with the other plot, it humanises him as a man, a mere man, with the weight of “millions in bondage and unborn millions to come” on his shoulders. He has to work up the courage to slowly weave his way through the bodies at Petersburg, because the end of slavery and the restoration of the Union is the prize of enduring such horror.
Of course, the real focus on Lincoln comes in the last of the three plots: The First Family. Mary Todd Lincoln, Tad Lincoln and Robert Lincoln are Abraham’s key connections to the world, ones that he struggles to tolerate and make time for as the bigger issues of the day pop up. The heartbreaking mental instability of his wife, the loneliness of his younger son, the angry recriminations of his oldest, it all adds up. The genuine warmth and heart that Lincoln has for his family despite all his troubles and all of their problems and difficulties, makes the President the man he is. Seeing him struggle to avoid losing his temper with Mary, making the inevitable explosion all the more powerful. Playing with Tad and making time for him even in the middle of the day. Calmly trying to talk Robert out of joining the army, and getting more physical when it doesn’t work. This is Lincoln the man, just trying to do the very best that he can with a family that is stretched to the breaking point. It’s a personal plot, an immersive one, that makes Lincoln a family drama as much as anything else.
You could say that the family plot gets a bit too much time, just a few minutes or scenes here and there, which could be reduced or cut without losing anything to the momentum and pace of the story being told. Carrying Tad to bed early on for example, or the grisly sight Robert has to endure at the veterans hospital. But that is more than made up for the in the sparkling back and forth between the family, especially Lincoln as he sternly warns Robert that, of all the fathers in the Union, he is maybe the only one who can actually stop his son from joining up, or Lincoln and Mary finally breaking down the respectable camouflage of their relationship and screaming at each other over their grief.
Lincoln’s family is one of contrasts with the great man himself. Mary Todd is overflowing with open grief and superstition over the death of her other son Willie and the chances of Robert being hurt or killed in the army. This contrasts sharply with the more jovial Lincoln, who portrays none of the same emotion when it comes to his son, not because he doesn’t feel it, but because he simply can’t let himself feel it, not in his position. This is brilliantly illustrated in the photographs that Tad has of slave children, which Lincoln considered on occasion. The feeling you get is one of comparison with Willie, how Lincoln cannot allow himself to be bogged down with mourning while children Willie’s age suffer in the institution of slavery.
For Robert, well, his older son knows that he can never match his illustrious father, and does not aim to, a fact of life that seems to pain the older Lincoln. Robert wants to prove his manhood in another way, the traditional martial way, and Abraham finds himself an unexpected stumbling block to someone’s ambitions. Robert has all the fire and “guts” of a young man out to prove himself, while Abraham is deliberately slower and patient in scenes with his son, save for one brief outburst when he defends his wife’s honour from an emotionally driven attack from Robert.
In point of fact, Lincoln is often a subordinate character in the film that bears his name. In the first plot, he only comes in late on in order to showcase his own political skills, and also in a memorable cellar scene with Thaddeus Stephens. In the peace plot he shares the screen with the conciliatory Blair and the triumphant Grant. This isn’t a bad thing, and the true excellence is seeing the way that Lincoln manages to imbue his presence on scenes where he is not there, through his own politicking and backstage manoeuvring.
What Spielberg has done that is truly excellent is to turn a legend into a person. Lincoln is a titan in our consciousness, the man who maintained the United States and freed the slaves, only to get cut down at the moment of his greatest triumph. Lincoln, much as Goodwin’s book did, cuts Lincoln down a bit, but only makes him more impressive as a result. Spielberg in his visual format, as Goodwin did in her written format, has made Lincoln and those who shared the stage with him into human beings, flawed, fallible and doubting of themselves. Lincoln essentially lies to Congress and tacitly endorses bribery in order to get the 13th Amendment passed, he uses the peace feelers as a crutch to trick some people and he encourages his wife to bury her feelings of grief in order to put in a happier public persona. But this merely shows Lincoln as the political genius that he was, someone who had an immense and singular understanding of how to work with people, prevent divisions, bend Congress to his will, get legislation passed and simply know just what the mood of the people was. As a politician, Lincoln stood second to none in his day and age. But this is not just due to his sense of politics, but also to his intense “goodness” as W.T. Sherman put it. Lincoln has an intractable moral barometer, but Spielberg and Day-Lewis have not created a living saint on screen, but simply an honest man.
There are so many stand-out moments to discuss in this movie, that I can only touch on them briefly. I suppose that is what marks Spielberg as a good director, aside from the great performances he always seems to get, his ability to frame a scene memorably and make it stick in the mind. There is the opening conversation with the two black soldiers, one educated, one not, a defining contrast that plays out in a larger sense in the Congressional battle later. No need for a recounting of the Gettysburg address here, just the intense praise of some young soldiers who have learned it by heart. Later Lincoln diffuses the tension of waiting for battle reports by telling an amusing anecdote to scores of telegraph workers, a key trait of his, excellently executed onscreen (especially a fuming Stanton who doesn’t want to hear it). There is the entrancing parallel drawn between the question of slavery and Euclidian geometry, echoing the words of the Declaration of Independence – there are “truths”, which are “self-evident”. There is the face-to-face discussion with the River Queen delegation, where Lincoln is forceful, then pleading as he asks “Shall we stop this bleeding?”. There is his interactions with Ulysses S. Grant, who tells Lincoln directly “We have won the war, but you must lead us out of it.” There is Mary Todd’s astonishing elaborate verbal put down to Thaddeus Stephens at the White House. There is Lincoln’s heart to heart conversation with Yeaman on the issue of abolition, an honest discussion between two conflicted men, paralleled with the “I am a prejudiced man” retort of Hutton. And there is the ending, as we flashback to the powerful words of the title character in his second inaugural speech, a flickering flame highlighting the way to a message that will stay lit throughout history:
With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Onto the cast then. It says something that there are no performances that I would criticise, and the ensemble is generally stellar.
There are three side of Lincoln for the three plots of this biopic. There is the Overseer, “Father Abraham”, who works from the shadows to get key legislation passed. There is the Politician, working out the ramifications of negotiations with the south and deciding how best to approach such a matter, decisively in the end once other things have been worked to his advantage. And there is the Family Man, who struggles with his ailing wife, his mourning child, and his headstrong son. In the end, what he is, is in command and willing to take responsibility for that and all that comes with it, if it is something as big as ending a war and freeing a whole race, or something as small as refusing to wear the gloves his wife picked up for him. Daniel Day-Lewis, as accomplished and professional a man as you could want, fulfils that role.
I suppose it would be somewhat pointless to add to the superlatives being bandied around Day-Lewis, so I would do well to keep it brief. He gives a very measured, quiet performance as Lincoln, giving him all of the reserved humanity and shining heart that the role requires. His accent is excellent, his stance is appropriate. He switches expertly between the happy Lincoln telling stories and celebrating victories with the more concerned Lincoln visiting veterans hospitals and dictating to his cabinet. He has clearly done much research into the speeches and monologues of Lincoln he has been asked to recreate, and he nails that aspect of the character most effectively. Day-Lewis gives the title character a great presence without being too overbearing.
The quiet and friendly nature of the character better emboldens the few moments when he raises his voice:
“Blood has been spilled to afford this moment, now, now, NOW!…I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power! You WILL procure me these votes.”
You’re never left in any doubt as to the legitimacy and accuracy of the portrayal, whether it’s the emphatic declarations that slavery must die, or the more relaxed tolerance of his wife’s mood swings or the conciliatory nature in discussions that leads him to call the Vice-President of the Confederacy “Alex”. I especially note a scene where Lincoln justifies his record for granting pardons to those sentenced to death by court martial, where he calmly and rationally explains a decision he is actually making for very emotional reasons. Fear is something we all experience, and Lincoln cannot condemn fear in a young soldier when he carries fear inside him too. That was a beautiful moment to showcase Day-Lewis acting ability, the nods, the speech, the pondering look.
I would expect nothing less from an actor of Day-Lewis’ quality and calibre. I do not see the actor onscreen, only Lincoln. Oscar winner? I would say so.
Then there is Sally Field. I wouldn’t say that she’s done enough to justify an Oscar nomination here, but her performance is still quite good. Mary Todd was an utterly damaged individual by the time period depicted, and Field brings that to the screen in a very realistic way, the wild mood changes, the superstition, the love for her husband mixing with anger. In truth, Mary Todd is depicted as more of an obstacle to Lincoln than anything, but an effective obstacle. Mary Todd is probably the most important person to Lincoln that he has to convince about the righteousness of his plans, and his victory in that sense is a major one. Field carries much of the drama in the voting scene, marking off “Yea’s” and “Nay’s” in the viewing gallery, and she portrays a sense of desperation and fear very well. Her verbal battle with Thaddeus Stephens is a classic example of 19th century society brought to screen, an elaborate verbal bitch-slap that loses nothing in its length and verbosity, all helped along by Field’s sarcastic smile and bitter look.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is back putting in a good performance in a good film, bringing us the impulsive, struggling Robert Lincoln. Perhaps “JGL” might be a tad too old for the role, but that doesn’t really affect the viewing of his performance too much. Gordon-Levitt doesn’t get a whole load of time, but still manages to convince us of his youthful distaste for authority, of his desire to prove his manhood in a way that will not be overshadowed by his father, of his restlessness under the thumb of his mother. He’s a foolish, head-strong person, whose declarations of rebellion are portrayed as the childishness that they really are, though that does not diminish the reality of his point. Robert is Lincoln’s very real link to the struggles of American families all across the land, so Gordon-Levitt’s character is rather pivotal in that sense, another avenue for Lincoln to connect to the people he is essentially ruling. The horror at the veteran’s hospital, the anger when told he cannot enlist, the sombre reflection as his father lays dying, Gordon-Levitt does it all with vivid emotion and a certain grace.
David Strathairn is William H. Seward. In truth, I think Lincoln has failed to really illustrate the depth of the friendship between the two men, as was made clear repeatedly in the book the movie is based off of. Maybe they simply didn’t have time. As a result, Strathairn is reduced to little less than a worrier and a naysayer, the man responsible for telling Lincoln how difficult his task is and delivering a little exposition to the audience. His best scene is early on as he goads a western couple into admitting they aren’t as abolitionist as they first appeared, and after that Strathairn is limited in what he is allowed to do. His angry retort at the Hampton Roads conference that the re-admitted southerners will not be a conquered people is as good as it gets. He never gets a pivotal scene in which to take a central focus like Field or Gordon-Levitt, and is largely upstaged by the likes of James Spader and other cast members. That’s a shame, because Seward is a fascinating figure in his own right, who was very nearly President instead of Lincoln.
Tommy Lee Jones does his best to steal the show, dominating the central plot of the 13th Amendment’s passage. This is a portrayal of the most hardened, grizzled radical that there was in the chamber at the time, the firebrand whose support was crucial. But more crucial still was the quest to get him to bend, and Jones shows us vividly a man in conflict between his long standing convictions of right and wrong, and his desire to see the awful practice of slavery done away with at last. No man better than Tommy Lee Jones to play someone with a penchant for dressing down those he deems inferior, for lambasting those he perceives as unjust and immoral, to dramatically declare his beliefs on the floor of Congress. The scene where he contemplates after compromising on his publically held beliefs is a classic for demonstrating how politics works, and ties into how much of an effective persuader Lincoln was. Stephens goes from preparing the harshest response to the Confederacy once the war is over, to falling back on a decree of legal equality over racial equality. Tommy Lee Jones takes us on that journey very well. I did think that the closing scene that depicts the (presumed) relationship with his partially black housekeeper was a bit much, and wasn’t that necessary to add to the character, but at least it gave Jones the chance to do his craft in a bit more of a softer, more reflective way.
Lee Pace, one of those actors who deserves to be getting more prominent roles than he does, gives us the wonderfully malevolent Fernando Wood, the closest Lincoln gets to an actual villain. The anti-abolitionist is never seen outside the legislature floor, but when he speaks there he makes it known that it is his territory, from the flowery criticism of Lincoln as “Abraham Africanus”, to his violent denunciations of democratic defectors late on. Page shows us cunning, mischievousness but overall a great charisma in Wood, a man who knows how to play to the crowd and the press, who knows the best way to damage an opponent. I presume Pace has some Shakespearean experience, because this role has all the hallmarks of one of the Bard’s better villains, with the pomp, the dagger-like look in the eyes, and the persuasive performance that comes with it.
James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes are the three Republican operatives covertly hired by Seward to get various Democrats onside. Their purpose is mostly comedic, and Spader, with his filthy clothes, unusual accent and indecent methods, is the lynchpin of all that. These guys only really exist in the movie to get a few laughs and to provide an outlet for Lincoln to show off some of his own political savvy (when they can’t get the job done anyway). The humour is good, a few bits of laughter in a sea of seriousness, most especially when Spader’s character has to avoid a gun shot from an outraged Congressman, and then pick up his papers as he slowly reloads. I note such scenes were depicted as deadly serious in the trailers, but Spielberg has always been able to throw in a bit of comedy in an otherwise dramatic tale without it ruining the ambiance.
Just to call special attention to two smaller roles that were of some importance, Jackie Earle Haley, who I last saw looking down and whispering “No” as Rorshach, gives an admirable effort as Confederacy Vice-President Alexander Stephens. He gets one key scene in which to show off, and there he brings us a composed negotiator, not a negative representation of the Confederacy like his fellow delegate members, but someone who does want the war to stop, and even for re-union to take place. I liked Earle’s representation of a man who does his best to stand up to someone as dominating as Lincoln, bluffing him as best he can, but Haley is better looked at as a portrayal of the last desperate dregs of the south, near collapse, understanding that aside from losing the war, the 13th Amendment has lost them their way of life. His bitter assault on Lincoln’s democracy, one “bounded in cannon fire and death” was very well done.
Then there is Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, probably my favourite personality of the period. The cigar, the gruff voice, the straightforward and stern attitude, Harris just, to be cliché, brings him to life on screen, from his pointed dismissal of Confederacy “terms” to his quiet reflection with Lincoln near the films conclusion. Lincoln and Grant are two of a kind, and I think Spielberg illustrated their relationship, the closeness and mutual loyalty, quite well. But you’re also left with the distinct impression of Grant’s confidence and power, from the moment he first ambles up to the River Queen. I can’t be the only one who would pay to see a Grant move with Harris in the leading role.
A host of other fine performance make up the cast, and I will touch upon a few of them quickly. Glorio Reuban gives an understated and solemn showing as Mary Todd’s dressmaker/confident Elizabeth Keckley, getting to reassure and support Lincoln himself in a critical scene. Stephen Henderson as Lincoln’s valet, Slade, has some metaphorical business to do and does it well. Michael Stuhlbarg is the conflicted yet basically honest Democratic politician George Yeaman, who has morally decent reasons for voting “No”, but comes to be persuaded by Lincoln in a moving scene. Hal Holbrook is the conciliatory Francis Preston Blair, who brings an urgency and insistence to his conversations with Lincoln on the topic of peace, but who also finds the time to make his character seem just a little bit mad too. Peter McRobbie does fine as the leader of the Democratic opposition, laying traps and barbs for his opponents, even if Pace does steal the limelight from him. Bruce McGill is the booming, occasionally manic Edward Stanton, who looks and acts the part superbly.
Visually, it’s another tight, professional effort from Spielberg and his production team. There is a certain dankness in the visualisation of Washington, a sooty dirtiness to the interior scenes, that brings historical accuracy as well as a pervasive mood. The emphasis is on dialogue and character, not background spectacle and CGI (save, perhaps, for a hauntingly beautiful representation of Petersburg in flames), so the camera is up close for the duos, more encompassing for the groups, but always with a central figure – usually Lincoln, sometimes Stephens – commanding the most attention. There are some great visual shots here, like the panning back and forth from the legislature floor to the gallery, the slow walk of the Confederate peace delegation flanked by black soldiers, the crash-cut from a grieving Mary Todd to a happy one at a party, the President receiving the news of the Amendments progression via the sound of bells and celebratory cannon, and probably most strikingly, Abraham Lincoln leaving the White House for the last time, marching with purpose down a hallway in the traditional garb we have come to associate with him, almost like he is walking into the very pages of history.
It isn’t all great. The lone fight scene near the start is poorly choreographed and framed, perhaps due to a lack of care in the violence being portrayed. The wheelbarrow of amputated limbs was an overly gruesome and tawdry spectacle to get the “horrors of war” point across. The entire Appomattox sequence was too long and completely unnecessary in the first place, and seemed to only exist to give Robert E. Lee a cameo in the movie. Similarly, Lincoln’s horseback crossing over the Petersburg battlefield was extended just a bit too long, with Spielberg glorying in his production teams recreation of the carnage a bit too much.
This is a dialogue heavy affair, so the script has to be up to the task. It’s Spielberg, so of course it is. There is so much source material for a film like this, that the key challenge is choosing what to cut out over what to leave in, and when to take the fateful step of putting your own words into the mouths of historical giants. The words are old-fashioned, lengthy and elaborate, but not so much that they are inaccessible or incomprehensible. This is a movie about politics and speeches, and you come away feeling the power of those words, be it a speech on the legislature floor or a fiery declaration from a son off to join the army. A few stray moments here and there do bring it down just a bit, like a very indulgent line about the horror of women voters being placed below black enfranchisement or some slightly over-hashed parts of the family drama. I think this is a case of having a quality writer (in this case, Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner) and not having to heart to cut back on some of them. The private conversations of Lincoln match what his recorded utterances would have us believe, and in combination with the direction and consistently good acting performances, the script sparkles, enthrals and pulls the viewer into the world of 19th century Washington D.C.
The scores is pretty forgettable really, which is not what you would have expected from a Spielberg film. None of the swelling choruses of Third Encounters and E.T. here, none of the memorable tunes of Indiana Jones, Saving Private Ryan or even Super 8. I suppose they didn’t want to distract too much from the performances on screen, and it’s hard to work in a good musical accompaniment to a long speech or monologue. But I still would have expected something better from the accomplished John Williams who has composed something utterly unworthy of note here.
Onto themes then. The main is Lincoln himself, such a titanic historical figure, he who “belongs to the ages” and how this movie approaches him. It chooses to give us a realistic view of a very romantically ingrained figure, showing us his bad spells of temper, his underhanded political dealings, his worries, his weakness, along with his more obvious positive attributes. Lincoln, while absent from screen for much of the running time, is the driving force of everything. He is a tyrant of a sort, and Lincoln has no qualms about showing that, with one scene where he justifies his suspension of habeas corpus being particularly interesting. Lincoln is viewed by most as an almost god-like figure sometimes, in the respect and admiration so many have for him. By the end of the film, most who were in two minds are convinced, with only the radical anti-abolitionists left on the other side. Lincoln encompasses the role of father of the nation, a successor to Washington, who so many look to for approval, for guidance, for advice. Stephens only backs down after a convincing from Lincoln, the Confederacy only walks away from peace talks after a stern declaration from Lincoln, Mary Todd only supports the Amendment after Lincoln sends his son to war, the lobbyist trio only succeeds after Lincoln steps in directly, the final obstacle to the passing of the Amendment is only removed on the direct intervention of Lincoln. There are other players, other parts to the process, but the emancipator is there above all, directing, scheming, plotting, commanding and being the great man that history has come to know him as. In showing that depiction without exaggeration, without too much scorn for his opponents, without hyperbole, Lincoln deserves respect. People may wonder why the Lincoln portrayed is not as he is in the minds of the popular consciousness, but this film shows us just why that state of affairs came to be so.
Then there is politics. This is a political film, one that might very well bore many, but I think it is still rather accessible. The American Civil War was a very political war, far more than most, a conflict fought in the legislature for decades before it was fought in the field. Lincoln shows us politics at its best and at it’s grimmest. The government of the people, by the people, for the people, can be an underhanded and nasty thing sometimes, but the main point at many times in Lincoln is that it is still there. America, and the Union, endures and Lincoln is not dictator-for-life and he needs to work through the system to get his way. In line with his great qualities, he knows how to work that system to his advantage, rather like an abolitionist version of Fernando Wood. Politics is a worthy occupation in Lincoln, an idealistic appointment, even with all of the begrudgery and shady dealings. That kind of thing is treated as comedic after all, and Spielberg is at pains to cast the politicians of 1865 as something more maybe than the politicians of today, ones who held true to their beliefs until compromise was the optimal choice, and made their primary professional outlet the thrilling speech rather than a brown envelope.
Freedom is also a central theme. When Thaddeus Stephens declares that “I don’t hold with equality in all things, just equality before the law, nothing more! ” and later Lincoln remarks on basic Euclidian geometry principles, “Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other”., the message is made clear without any need for pained spelling out. Those truths remain self-evident, “that all men are created equal”. Freedom is the quest of all the sympathetic characters, maybe not a complete freedom as we would understand it today, but a freedom that can lead easily on to others. As early as the first few minutes a black soldier talks about how he would be unsatisfied with a post-war job as a shoe-shine or barber, and we realise the overwhelming avalanche of racial evolution that Lincoln has started with this war. Lincoln is the story of the next part of that evolution. Many would try and define the American Civil War as a conflict about the nature of freedom in the country, and this is not quite true, at least not singularly. But this is the aspect of the conflict that Spielberg has chosen to focus on, as Lincoln and Stephens and Mary Todd and even the Confederate peace delegation contemplate and come to grips with the idea of freedom in American, how it can be changed, why it must be changed. Black characters, by and large, take an absolute back seat in Lincoln, with the white men doing their representations for them, but what black characters we do see are free men and women, productive members of society, slowly dragging themselves onto an equal footing.
Then there is sacrifice, connected to the last theme, in so far as determining how much must be given up in pursuit of freedom. The black race in America has paid with their blood, sweat and tears. In Lincoln, the title character pays with his political capital, with his health, with his relationship with his wife. Stephens must sacrifice his dearly held principles just to keep the effort going. Grant has to sacrifice scores of his own troops to gain the victory so desperately needed. Mary Todd likens the suffering of her family as a punishment from God, a punishment that will continue, a sacrifice for their various sins and failures. Principles have to be bent, spirits have to be tested. There is no victory, no freedom, without a deep-seeded commitment to seeing the job through, a commitment that many characters seem to get solely from Lincoln himself.
Lastly, I will mention morality, the continuing battle between what is right and what is convenient. The moral barometer of Abraham Lincoln is what makes him the great man that he was. Every fibre of his being in this film is connected to simply doing what is right, what is best for the country, for the millions in bondage. When he wavers, he always comes back to that core of moral righteousness, that the Confederacy cannot be allowed to prevail in any way, that slavery has to be killed dead, there and then. Sometimes it takes a little nudge in the right direction, from his wife, his sons or soldiers, but Lincoln always comes back to the decent course. Slavery is abolished, a hand of friendship is offered to a south, on the north’s terms. From freeing the slaves once and for all to pleading with Alexander Stephens “Shall we stop this bleeding?”, Lincoln just has that innate sense of what is right, what is good, what is acceptable. He carries his cabinet, the Republican Party and some of the Democratic Party with him. This is probably best seen in the telegram office scene, as Lincoln recounts the basics of Euclidean geometry when contemplating the issue of abolition. The first principle is about equality, which leads in Lincoln’s mind to balance and fairness. Lincoln pauses as if a deep truth – a self-evident one perhaps – has occurred to him. “That’s justice” he says, pretty much to himself. The conciliatory note to the Confederacy is immediately scraped.
But we see it elsewhere too. The various parts of the abolitionist legislature get their extreme points represented by Stephens and his absolute conviction that slavery is an evil that must be violently eradicated, and Yeaman, who is more cautious, more trembling, more content to see the very gradual tide of history continue its slow course. The anti-abolitionists, for whatever their reasons, fall on the wrong side of the morality question, sometimes through blind racial hate, sometimes through political opportunism. Are there are the shades of grey, the lobbyists, who rally for an end to slavery, but do so with bribes and patrimony, a middle course that Lincoln strays into for a time.
All these themes tie into the others. A sense of what is right and moral leads to sacrifices being made in the cause of freedom, a freedom achieved through a political process headed by the great man himself.
I must close with some feelings regarding the conclusion of both this film and the book. As I entered the last 20 pages of Perkin’s work and the last few minutes of this, I had a very distinct urge to simply close the covers and walk out of the theatre. Leave it unfinished, I don’t want to know how the story ends. Seeing Lincoln walk towards his final doom, illustrated uniquely by his son Tad receiving the news in an horrific manner (a daring way to portray it, that did not entirely work for me), is a truly sad moment, a melancholy brought on by the truly tremendous piece of work that I had just finished reading/watching. I had come to identify, understand and sympathise deeply with the Lincoln character, with the causes that he struggled with and for that, the production team and director of Lincoln are to be applauded, along with all cast members. It is increasingly rare nowadays that I connect with a film in such a manner that a few tears have to fought against, from the ringing of the liberty bells to the final depictions of Lincoln’s second inaugural speech.
“I suppose it is time to go….though I would rather stay.”
Spielberg probably indulges himself a bit too much with that last line, delivered like a man who somehow knows he is walking to his doom, like he is some sort of heaven sent angel whose time has now elapsed on the earth, but it fits. Lincoln is a giant to approach in terms of filmmaking, but Spielberg and Day-Lewis have done an incredibly, praise deserving job, to show us a man and a film to make us remember “the better angels of our nature”. Fully recommended.
(All pictures are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and 20th Century Fox)