Went off to see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln this morning. I’ve heard lots of wonderful things about the movie both in print and from friends who’ve seen it. It was an astonishingly good movie, especially for a historical flick. The movie, inspired in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a wonderful, lengthy examination of Abraham Lincoln’s political leadership during the Civil War. The movie has everything one hopes to see in a great movie-superb performances, a great story, wonderful writing, and all the wonderful historical sets one could hope for. However the real reason the movie succeeds so well, and Peter Jackson pay attention, is because of the things it doesn’t do.
Goodwin’s book is nearly 900 pages long. It follows Lincoln’s national career from his election until his assassination, basically four years of the 16th president’s life. However Spielberg deliberately focuses on a single topic in Lincoln’s incredibly eventful presidency, the passage of the 13th amendment through the House of Representatives in January 1865. This measure will constitutionally end slavery As the war begins to wind down, with Confederate defeat appearing inevitable, the movie focuses on Lincoln’s fervent desire to pass the amendment before the end of the lame duck Congressional term. Though the movie is focused on the “inside baseball” of mid 19th century political wheeling and dealing, we are offered a glimpse at the Lincolns. Mary’s private struggles with her son Willie’s death of typhus, as well as congressional charges she was a spendthrift during wartime. We see Lincoln’s White House, filled with office seekers and favor gatherers, with the president relatively unguarded by aides and Secret Service agents, only Robert Nicolay and John Hay, his secretaries, to do his bidding. And there is always the war, the terrible war, and the almost desperate desire to end the bloodletting. But the desperation is balanced on the other hand by Lincoln’s own fervent, human wish to infuse the bloodshed with meaning by ending slavery forever, hence the struggle to pass the amendment.
Standing above all the storytelling, however is Lincoln. Or perhaps it’s Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. If this movie does anything, it casts this American icon as a fully formed human being. Lincoln is a loving, grieving father, not just of his own sons, young Tad, his dead Willie, and his earnest Robert, but of all the nation’s sons, North and South, who endured four years of slaughter, and who may yet meet their fate on some muddy field. He is a supportive husband, torn between the need to give emotional aid to his half-mad wife, and somehow run his torn and bleeding country drowning in the madness of civil war. Lewis’ Lincoln is not some cardboard cut-out prairie populist cloaked in saccharine sentiment, but a living, breathing being capable of telling those same homespun stories we’ve always heard about, but also drawing on Shakespeare and Euclidian geometry when necessary to reinforce his points. Most of all, this Lincoln is a politician, a bit of a schemer, capable of using the tools at his disposal-argument, moral suasion, and the patronage appointment-to get what he wants. He acknowledges his extra-constitutional use of power during wartime, and when need be he commands the forces on his behalf to act. ” I am the President of the United States, clothed in great power.” With those words he is transformed from gentle father of his people, to the greatest president of all time. Lewis is beyond convincing in the role, and Spielberg’s story gives him room to fully explore this remarkable man without resorting to cliche, stereotype, or Texas high school history book maudlin sentimentality.
Lewis’ fine performance is bolstered by the work of others. Sally Field does a fine job in the difficult role of Mary Lincoln. Mary, at once the supportive wife, and grieving mother, but also the petulant, self-serving daughter of a plantation owner is always present in Lincoln. Her performance is worthy of Oscar consideration. Tommy Lee Jones plays the crusty Pennsylvania abolitionist representative Thaddeus Stevens. Forced to accept the half-a-loaf of freedom for the slaves without voting rights or full social equality, Jones portrays Stevens with appropriate moral outrage tempered with the practical politics of the possible. Additional fine performances are turned in by David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward; Hal Holbrook as Republican insider Preston Blair, and J. Gordon Leavitt as Robert Lincoln. There are many more fine performances in smaller roles.
If the movie has a failing, it is in the last 15 minutes when Spielberg gives in and tries to do too much. With the passage of the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives, the story is really over. Yet, we see Lincoln’s visit to the ruin of Richmond on April 3rd, the Robert E. Lee farewell from Appomattox. Though the film poignantly portrays Lincoln departing for Ford’s Theater that fateful April night, it needlessly takes us to the deathbed scene. Really? Lincoln dies? Unfortunately, the movie ends with a chunk from Lincoln’s second inaugural, the greatest American speech ever, period, the end. Why? It has a connection to the story, but it’s left hanging out there like a lone, gleaming Christmas ornament on Charlie Brown’s tree.
But, in the great scheme of things, I quibble. Spielberg avoids temptation to take this movie and inflate it. There could have been a Lincoln I, II, and III. This is a big movie about relatively small, but enormously important events. There is no sneaking Lincoln into Washington after his 1860 election. There is no bombardment of Fort Sumter. There are no blood-soaked vignettes from Antietam, or Gettysburg or Cold Harbor. Indeed Spielberg treats his audience with respect and intelligence and expects them to know something about history by referencing these important Civil War events. He focuses on a single month, a single uplifting moment, from a dark, tumultuous time in our history and allows a multidimensional image of our greatest president to emerge, warts and all.
No explosions. No chase scenes. Nothing added to fill out the time. Just a great story and magnificent performances. Peter Jackson could learn from this.