Director Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, War Horse, Schindler’s List) returns to American history with his stately Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role and the outcome is better than his last purely historical exercise, the moral monstrosity Munich. It’s been seven years since that atrocious movie, which was co-written by the writer who also wrote Lincoln. Worse, Lincoln is “partly based” on a sketchy book about the nation’s 16th president by a known, admitted plagiarist, Harvard’s disgraced Doris Kearns Goodwin. Add that this DreamWorks/20th Century Fox picture is being distributed by Disney with a soundtrack by Sony and you have the potential for too many cooks – some of them bad cooks – making a mess.
But the movie is anything but awful. It’s not deep, or penetrating – this is not Lincoln’s definitive story – and it is decidedly safe. What Lincoln lacks in passion it compensates for in Spielberg’s masterful touches, including lighting and a well-integrated score (by longtime collaborator John Williams) focusing on a central character in moving pictures, which glide in motion around the towering, graceful republican who fought a war to abolish slavery, reunified a broken nation and died in an assassination. Spielberg deals in words expressed as part of the action. As the plot moves across the end of the Civil War toward Confederate surrender amid President Lincoln’s growing determination to amend the Constitution and put an end to chattel slavery, the director of Jaws polishes each part as if he’s shining a classic car. Abraham Lincoln, a Kentucky native raised in Illinois, is telescoped into a narrow but crucial passage in our American history, with nothing of his youth, multiple failures and formative intellectual debates with Stephen Douglas. He is, in Lincoln’s words, keenly aware of his aloneness in the White House. His son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) defies him. His wife (Sally Field) navigates him. His secretary of state (David Straithairn) respects him. But only Abe Lincoln, expertly played by Day-Lewis, bears the burden of saving the United States of America from a huge mistake.
Lincoln carries that dramatic weight with all its flaws. It starts too late in the war, without pretext, leaving a proper setting for slavery, i.e., how it came to be accepted, the fact that it was perpetually controversial and had been hotly debated and dogged the nation from its founding, out of the picture, which drains power and makes the movie too pedantic and churchy. We do not experience slavery in the film, though we do experience the war over slavery. Instead, we see several Negroes who have escaped slavery, some entirely, and it’s good to see depictions of the Union, including its black contingents, fighting for slaves to be free. We see compromises, bad philosophy and racism dramatized, but we do not see slaves under slavery, so the South and its rotten way of life get off too easy. The Democrats, however, do not, and Tommy Lee Jones (Hope Springs, Company Men) as a radical Republican fighting for slavery’s abolition delivers a blistering attack that should remind the public that today’s Democrats and their vicious, hateful progression toward total economic slavery – and hatred of the productive – is rooted in a fundamentally backward, archaic view that man’s moral obligation is to serve men. It’s a short scene, probably not intended to convey what I’ve just written, but it’s inescapable to those who think and know the history that thinkers such as John David Lewis – whose Civil War lessons ran through my mind as I watched Lincoln – teach us.
These Republicans were Republicans in the proper sense of the term; the party was born of passionate moral opposition to enslavement of men, women and children and America’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, is portrayed by Day-Lewis as a thoughtful man who weighed his words and actions. He is a measured man of honesty, integrity and reason, citing mathematics with regard to rejecting slavery. He is not without both humor, telling a joke that reminds us of the greatness of George Washington, and anger, almost slamming a coffee pot down before he tells the joke. Sally Field as his wife, who grieved with her husband for her dead child, matches her co-star in every scene they have together. The cast is very good, particularly Gloria Reuben as a former slave who plays it cool and dares to ask him an important question and 87-year-old Hal Holbrook as an old coot with leverage but it’s Tommy Lee Jones who makes the most of his part, other than Field and Day-Lewis, holding the moral drive steady toward slavery’s extinction with grit and resolve – and the plain pursuit of his own selfish happiness.
The climax of the story revolves around a rumor and the false dichotomy – again, posed by irrationalists – of peace versus freedom. The vote on the 13th Constitutional amendment to abolish slavery in the House of Representatives is suspenseful only in the recreation of a crucial moment in history, brought forth by a single man – an individualist in the arena – who ultimately refused to put faith, tradition and feelings above facts and, while certain aspects of this larger-than-life tale such as the historic role of Frederick Douglass and anti-slavery industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie are pointedly absent, there is no denying the power of an American movie made by a man from the Midwest about a man from the Midwest who proclaimed the Negroes’ emancipation and struck down slavery, the precondition to restoring individual rights.
“Godammit, I’m voting Yes,” one legislator says as he casts a single vote to end slavery less than a hundred years after our country was founded. Spielberg, with the woman who leads Disney’s new company, Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, has made a movie that’s too safe and slow, but his Lincoln is also strong, character-driven and compelling. Choosing to let the camera serve as an intently involved witness to noble ideals in debate and action – including a memorable passage from Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg address – the director of Close Encounters of the Third Kind trades the anticipation for that picture’s single-minded mid-American crusading for communion for this picture’s single-minded mid-American crusading for a union. Both in their own ways, each film’s character lost a lot including family in achieving his goal – both got there in aloneness – and both men focused on the future, not the past. Lincoln, evoking the gravest American injustices since slavery was abolished, from what our government did to punish Americans who were Japanese and what it did to enslave Elian Gonzalez to today’s enslavement of industry, medicine, banking and nearly every aspect of our lives, calls upon us to act now to protect what Lincoln lived – and died – for: freedom over slavery.