We think of Abraham Lincoln as a man of of great words and deeds. He is held up as a paragon. He freed the slaves and saved the union. But there is more to the complex man. And Steven Spielberg and screen play author Tony Kushner have made of motion picture that shows a different side of our 16th president.
It is difficult to tell a story when everyone hearing it knows the ending. But Spielberg succeeds and may have a Oscar sweep on his hands.
“Lincoln” is about the passing of the 13 amendment, the one that abolished slavery. The south had lost the war, it was all over but the terms. The senate had passed the amendment and it was up to the ‘peoples’ house to finalize it and send it to certain passage by the states.
The amendment is sponsored by the Republicans and fought by the Democrats. It was feared not that the slaves would be freed, but that, shudder, they would also receive suffrage, and that might bring, gasp, the right to vote for, dare we say it, women. Of course there is the underpinning of prejudice which bubbles just below the surface.
The Republicans had the majority, but needed 2/3. Lincoln, played with academy award brilliance by Daniel Day-Lewis, sent Secretary of State Steward, the roll filled by Daniel Strathairn, to get the votes needed. And they proceeded to bribe, cajole, threaten, blackmail, and use every possible dirty trick known to politics to reach their goal. All with Lincoln’s tacit approval.
Lincoln’s task was complicated by citizen Preston Blair, played by veteran Hal Holbrook, who began negotiations with the Confederacy and organized a meeting between a group led by Confederate State’s VP Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earl Haley) and the president. The problem was that if the meeting took place before the vote in the house, the vote would be put off, the war would end, and the amendment would probably never come to pass.
All this intrigue takes place while Lincoln argues with his troubled wife, Mary, played to a “T” by Sally Field, over whether son Robert should be allowed to join the army.
All the rolls including Grant’s Jared Harris, Political operative W N Bilbo’s James Spader, down to Robert E Lee’s Christopher Boyer and his horse, Traveler, were filled by actors who were able to be made up to look like the photographs we find familiar.
There is no question that Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is an historical event. His soft spoken, almost soprano rendition of his voice, a written description of which is available is unique but seems to fit the human yet frustrated president.
Another Oscar contender is Tommy Lee Jones who was cast in the role of abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, representative from Pennsylvania. Jones played the bombastic Stevens with a charm that was seen strangely when he was taking a tongue lashing from Mary Lincoln, during which he said not a word.
I liked this movie, but I thought the ending was pedestrian, predictable, and took away from the focus of the story, the abolition of slavery. See this move and tell me that it should have ended as Lincoln walked out the door of the White House on his way to Ford’s theater. I had started to get up when damn if it didn’t continue. Come on Steven, we know what happens, now need to show us.
Go see Lincoln, take the kids (warning there are some gory battle scenes but frankly no worse than on most video games). This is Spielberg at his Schindler’s List best.