The president muscles the 13th amendment through Congress in the final days of the Civil War in Lincoln, an entertaining character study from director Steven Spielberg.
Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has been recently reelected to the presidency, but that doesn’t mean life is now easy sailing. The country is still at war with itself, and Congress is awash with all sorts of discontent — in addition to the Democrats in actual rebellion with the country, there are the Democrats who remain in the union but have sympathies for the slave-holding south, Republican abolitionists (led by Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens) who are at odds with other members of their party and a slew of lame duck congressmen whose loyalties and ideals are, potentially, flexible. Before a new Congress is seated and certainly before the war ends and southern states are a part of the Congressional tally again, Lincoln wants a vote on the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. He needs 20 votes and, with the help of Secretary of State William Seward (David Stratharin), he sets out to get them — first by offering patronage to those lame-duck congressmen and then by applying pressure himself.
Meanwhile, Lincoln faces just as much discord on the homefront. His wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) is still shaky from the death of their young son a few years earlier. Her grief has gotten in her way of being a good mother to their youngest son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), and is one of the reasons she won’t let oldest son, Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), enlist in the army. Robert, fearful that service in the war will be the measure of a man in the coming years, is determined to join up.
If you could dial Aaron Sorkin back to half-speed and replace his earnest polic-sci-geekdom with a Spielberg glow, you’d have a good sense of where this movie lives. The best scenes feature Lincoln, Seward and a trio of very shady persuaders — played with glee by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes — working the numbers, clawing for one more yes vote. We get a Lincoln more like LBJ than a deified American saint, working the legislative branch to make a group of people with competing interests do something they have no real interest in doing. The movie’s second best scenes feature Lincoln using folksy, goofy stories to annoy, confound or charm his staff and his opponents. Day-Lewis clearly digs into the man, particularly the professional Lincoln, the Lincoln at work, and enjoys flushing out the character (a “character” in the movie, but also, we suspect, a character that Lincoln created to help him do his job as president).
Less successful and less interesting is the Lincoln family. The petulant Robert, the erratic Mary — it feels like these characters are here to make the movie seem more about the man and less about the month he spent working on the amendment. I personally would have been perfectly happy to see the energy spent on these characters used on the congressional battle instead. We didn’t learn anything new about the Lincoln family in these scenes that seem to suck momentum out of the rest of the story.
Whether you are a Lincoln buff or not, Day-Lewis’ performance is enough to make this two-and-a-half hour saga enjoyable. And even though there is no surprise about the fate of the amendment, the political maneuverings make for some edge-of-your-seat story telling. (I’m not one to cry at movies but I did choke up a bit when the 13th Amendment was read, and I got chills when pieces of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural were recited. Who knew presidential speeches and constitutional amendments were my The Notebook?) But there is a processed-bread quality to Lincoln that smooths out too many of the rough edges. I liked the window into history, but I would have liked a closer look at some of the grittier messier parts of 1860s politics even more. B
Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language. Directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tony Kushner (based in part on a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin), Lincoln is two hours and 29 minutes long and distributed by Touchstone Pictures.