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'Lincoln': A Great Emancipator, But Not Quite A Saint

Daniel Day-Lewis takes on one of America's most famous presidents in <em>Lincoln</em>.
Daniel Day-Lewis takes on one of America's most famous presidents in Lincoln.

This election season, pundits have been fond of pointing out the near-50/50 split of the electorate and talking about how the American people are as deeply divided as at any other time in our history. The opening moments of Lincoln put those hyperbolic claims in perspective, as Steven Spielberg — with his usual flair for highlighting how truly ugly war really is — shows a nation so divided that its opposing factions are killing one another in numbers so extreme that the bodies are literally piling up on top of one another.

There's also a lot of talk today about the incivility of the discourse between our elected representatives. But Spielberg's depiction of the state of affairs on the floor of Congress during debates over the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, is another shot of cold water to the face.

The conflicts here between the congressional Democrats (who oppose the amendment) and the Republicans (who were themselves fostering a shaky alliance between opposed internal camps) are only barely more civil than the soldiers on the battlefields. Not even wartime and daily national tragedy is enough to keep these politicians from sniping at one another so viciously that it makes the most heated modern exchanges feel like a legislative love-in.

Presiding over all of this, with a reputation for nobly rising above the fray, is Abraham Lincoln, here portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in a performance so effortless and invisible that it's easy to forget this is an actor playing Lincoln and not the man himself.

Day-Lewis' Lincoln is soft-spoken and folksy, with a gentle, reedy voice unlike that of many of the actors who have played the man before, but truer to historical accounts of what he sounded like. That voice, as thin and willowy as the man himself, seems almost incongruous for a man of such charisma and presence — even more so when it becomes clear that Spielberg, along with screenwriter Tony Kushner, has put together a portrait of Lincoln that is as averse to pulling punches as are his battle sequences.

Working from Doris Kearns Goodwin's Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals, Kushner's script looks at just the few months leading up to the end of the war — and, more importantly, to the difficult passage of that 13th Amendment. As the movie begins, Lincoln is far short of the needed votes, and even his Cabinet is fighting his commitment to its passage, which it views as a distraction from and impediment to the coming end of the war.

Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln, whose emotional volatility has been described in terms that lead some contemporary observers to believe she may have suffered from bipolar disorder.
/ DreamWorks
Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln, whose emotional volatility has been described in terms that lead some contemporary observers to believe she may have suffered from bipolar disorder.

What follows is a campaign of graft, bribery and carefully orchestrated manipulation that is ethically dubious at best, impeachable at worst. A team of men, led by the slimy W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) is tasked by Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) with essentially buying the votes of lame-duck Democrats, while abolitionist firebrand Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, in a performance just as central and Oscar-worthy as Day-Lewis') coordinates backroom deals within his own party.

Spielberg's Lincoln is a man of undeniably noble intentions, but one not afraid of getting his hands dirty in pursuit of those goals. The true genius of Day-Lewis' performance is in how he allows just a glimpse at the passion, rage and Machiavellian drive beneath the surface of a man given to telling wry, folksy parables to get his points across.

Even with the narrow focus, the film sometimes bites off just a little more than it can handle. A subplot about Lincoln's oldest son's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) determination to serve in the Army feels like a superfluous distraction, while attempts to address the president's complex relationship with his wife, Mary (Sally Field), never quite approach the thoughtful depth and detail of the political maneuvering.

In fact, the human drama of Lincoln is often less compelling than its political plot — which, even given its on-the-record outcome, becomes a gripping political thriller at its peak. Spielberg occasionally slips into the sort of maudlin sentimentality that sank last year's War Horse, viewing Lincoln with a gauzy, deifying reverence that threatens to undercut the surprising toughness of the rest of the movie.

But such moments are thankfully few and far between, allowing for a more genuine admiration of the man: This Lincoln isn't an abstracted, infallible ideal, but rather a deeply conflicted, often lonely leader simply trying to do the right thing — even if that means a few wrong things along the way.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ian Buckwalter
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