How do you find the man behind the statue? How do you explore the flaws that helped create a saint? That’s the challenge of portraying Abraham Lincoln on film, a challenge that (the occasional vampiric throwdown notwithstanding) filmmakers have studiously avoided since the 1940s. Deifying him makes for a boring movie and trying to cover all the events of his life turns it into (to paraphrase director Steven Spielberg) a “greatest hits collection.” So when the time came for Spielberg to tackle the Great Emancipator in this extraordinary new biopic, he had to find the right way to crack that code.
We shouldn’t be at all surprised that he succeeded. Not with the great Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead and Doris Kearne Goodwin’s amazing book Team of Rivals as a basis. The surprise is how engrossing, enlightening and flat-out incredible that success turns out to be. It focuses on a few brief months and one overwhelming task. Through them, we gain insight into both the man and the leader that has yet to appear on such a scale.
The task was the passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery for good and all. In January of 1865, it was far from a done deal. The South was on its knees, but had not yet surrendered, and Washington remained as much a hotbed of shifty political ass-hats as it is today. If he waited until the South surrendered, Lincoln risked losing the Amendment to waffling compromise. The public would be behind it if it meant winning the war, but afterwards? “Well gee, those black folks might take our jobs, and we couldn’t support them all if they moved north, and the Confederates have learned their lesson, so maybe we’ll just let them keep their slaves, and…” Lincoln refused to entertain that awful possibility and its accompanying cost: 600,000 men killed by their countrymen for absolutely nothing.
The problem? He didn’t have the votes. The pro-slavery Democrats universally opposed him and even some of the Republicans had issues with his goals. (It should be noted that party ideologies back then were very different from ideologies now; in other words, ain’t nobody taking sides in any 21st century arguments here, so everyone relax.) He got it done by switching to full-bore sneaky bastard mode. Lincoln demonstrates the 16th President’s amazing political acumen in cutting backroom deals, engaging in routine blackmail and strong-arming various D.C. weasels who weren’t going along with the program. He did all this even as he secretly met with Southern representatives eager to negotiate a peace, and dealt with his grieving wife Mary (Sally Field) and army-happy son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
The resulting portrait gives us an intimate feeling of how he functioned beneath the enormous burdens of his time. He states his hopes and his fears eloquently enough, but Day-Lewis also displays the richness of his humor, the depths of his conviction and the terrible consequences he faced if he failed. He’s no angel; just someone with a clear eye on his goal and an understanding of the things he needs to do to reach it. The real politick of his efforts stands in sharp contrast to the glorified speeches and moral deification we’re accustomed to with him. We see in sharp terms how an absolute good can arise from a thousand tiny bends and breaks… and, more importantly, how a shrewd and canny group of people made it happen in the midst of the rollicking chaos of democracy.
The story thus encompasses both Lincoln himself and our own political process (which doesn’t look all that different 150 years later). The film delves into peripheral figures such as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones in an Oscar-worthy turn) and gutless Congressman Wells A. Hutchins (Walton Goggins), but always keeps the focus on the Amendment – and Lincoln’s efforts to pass it – rather than their own equally fascinating lives. It’s apt to leave you scrambling for the history books when you get done, and that’s kind of the point. The director remains an ardent humanist, and the comparison suggests hope for our country and its venerable institutions far more than despair. “This shit has gone on a long time,” Spielberg tells us. “And slowly but surely, it makes things better.” Especially with a figure so implacable at its head: embodied to perfection by Day-Lewis and all the more endearing for his flawed, sometimes stumbling efforts to create a miracle out of mud. Lincoln reminds us why we build so many statues to the man, as well as how little he saw of that glory in the waning days of his life. We’re left admiring him all the more for his similarities to us mere mortals, and wondering sadly how much different life might be right now if the fates had allowed him to live.