One would be hard pressed to find a more educational, entertaining, and sensual two and a half hours of film than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. That this movie comes to us at a time when an African-American sits in the white house seems prophetic. It is this information that provides the dramatic irony that streams throughout the arguments against abolition on the floor of congress and makes the viewer keenly aware of Lincoln’s moral courage even as Lincoln, played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis, himself could not verbalize how
the effects of a 13th Amendment passage would manifest.
The 16th president was a driven man, an autodidact with a tremendous humility that tempered the tremendous power that comes with the Presidency. The movie, taken from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, lays to rest the oft told tales of Lincoln’s moral ambivalence towards the idea of ending slavery. The central conflict in Lincoln deals with the opposition of the Democrats in the House of Representatives to the passage of the 13th Amendment and educates the viewer as it pulls apart the south’s argument for the continuation of slavery. The importance of this amendment passage is obvious. But, the rush of activity to pass this legislation in that particular month (January 1865) rather than wait for a new pro-Lincoln congress to be seated needs explanation. The prevailing rationale was that Lincoln wanted to show cross-party approval to prove a national unity. But, hadn’t national unity been evident with Lincoln’s reelection in 1864? In his New York Times review of Lincoln, professor of history at the University of Virginia, Philip Zelikow, suggests Spielberg is the truer “historian” here because the movie’s explanation “that Lincoln and…Secretary of State William H. Seward, realized that the war might end at any time and when it did, any prospect for passing the amendment as a means to win the war would end with it” (NYT Opinionator, 2012), provides a more persuasive argument. Using this premise, Spielberg sets up the intrigue prompted by the parallel story of Francis Preston Blair Sr. (played by the late Hal Holbrook) the well-respected, conservative Republican and his attempts to arrange secret peace talks between Confederate and Union envoys. It is plausible that had these talks actually taken place prior to the vote, and a peace agreement been signed, the argument for the passage of the 13th Amendment (the necessity of outlawing slavery forever to end the war) would have been found weak. Spielberg’s movie pulls back the curtain on the workings of the House and the men who filled the air with jubilant applause or boos and hisses depending on the matter at hand. But even this frat-house atmosphere did not minimize the effect of the heightened language used to cut and rend its target with precise aim. The radical Republican (no oxymoron in this instance) Thaddeus Stevens, played beautifully by Tommy Lee Jones, spouted erudite rejoinders that made me wish I had a paper and pen to record his words for personal posterity (and usage).
The four-month period covered in the film represents the last four months of Lincoln’s life and serves to humanize Lincoln, his family and close friends. We hear Lincoln – before we see him – his dreams being recalled to his wife, Mary Todd, played by Sally Field. The sense that his wife is the vessel into which Lincoln’s hopes for the future of a whole country are poured is prominent from the very beginning. We are treated to Lincoln’s soft nurturing side as he spots his son Tad (played by Gulliver McGrath) asleep by the fireplace and proceeds to get down on the floor, lovingly stroking his son’s hair before hoisting him on his back for the trip to bed thus completing what we come to believe is this father and son’s bedtime ritual. It is hard to say who is responsible (director or actor) for the humanity that animates Lincoln. Maybe it is simply the collective elegance of Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg that binds the audience to the film’s message. The same can be said for Mary Todd Lincoln. Sally Field lets us see the tormented Mrs. Lincoln who, after suffering a parent’s worst nightmare – the death of a child – continues to waver between fierce reality and a drain-circling melancholia. We see Mrs. Lincoln’s insight as she attempts to locate her place in history, suggesting that she will be forever seen as the hysterical wife and impediment to a famous husband. Today, Mary Todd Lincoln would be treated with a well prescribed anti-depressant and expected to snap out of it for the sake of the country. But parental torment is not hers alone. Both husband and wife do verbal battle in an argument laced with a combined, unresolved grief. It is Lincoln who acknowledges his grief, declaring it just as legitimate as his wife’s. The president’s outburst emotion underscores the enormous weight wrought by the his desire to pass legislation of great scale and the heart-deadening sadness of his child’s death.
The movie’s subtle lighting lends itself to the somber plot. The soft close lighting of the lair belonging to democratic party operative William Bilbo, played convincingly by James Spader, added to the intrigue of the Bilbo character who, now freed from prison by Lincoln, begins to lobby/politic for the passage of the 13th Amendment. The relationship between Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward, played by David Strathairn, embodies John Hay’s (Assistant Private Secretary to Abraham Lincoln) description of a “friendship…so absolute and sincere…between these two magnanimous spirits.” Seward is by turns conscience and devil’s advocate assuring Lincoln of multiple perspectives on issues. But it is Day-Lewis’s Lincoln who commands the screen as he is shuttled around a muddy Washington in an open carriage and as he spurs then halts his horse through battlefields quiet but for the smoke and blood. We see the pain of a man, a husband, and a father as he sadly takes in the faces of the dead – young men the age of his oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln who desperately wants to fight for the Union cause. Lincoln’s calm demeanor is broken three times – once in his argument with his wife, and when he slaps his oldest son in parental frustration with his son’s military aims, and again when he pounds his fist on the desk yelling for his team to get the votes needed to pass the amendment. This last outburst sets off a montage of activity detailing perfectly calibrated cajoling, lobbying and the promising of all manner of perks to the congressional lame ducks. Lincoln’s insistence on getting the necessary votes rather than be satisfied with Blair’s peace arrangement with the south leaves one to shudder at the potential for disaster had the south been left to take care of its slave “problem.” It is as if Lincoln knew this, knew of his limited time left and was quite willing to endure the long rough history with fairness.