Don’t know much about history – but you don’t have to in order to be captivated by Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”
Instead of making a conventional biopic, Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner chose to use a single month of Lincoln’s presidency – January, 1865 – to examine the character, power and persuasiveness of our 16th and, arguably, greatest president. By doing so, they reveal much about the man, his time and the difficult choices he had to make.
As 1865 starts, the Civil War has been raging for four years, though the South is on its last legs. The time is right, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) tells his secretary of state, William Seward (David Strathairn), to push Congress to pass a Constitutional amendment outlawing slavery. Though Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, he is concerned that, once the war is over, this wartime edict would lack the force of law in the South.
The U.S. Senate had passed this bit of legislation – which would become the 13th Amendment to the Constitution – in 1864. But the U.S. House of Representatives had failed to pass it because the split between the two parties was too even. Seward argues against attempting to get it passed now because the South appears ready to surrender – and Democrats are arguing that enacting abolition would threaten the prospect of peace.
But the canny Lincoln understands politics at an almost cellular level. He recognizes that, if peace comes before the amendment and the Southern states rejoin the Union, the South will prevent this legislation from passing. Which means that slavery will continue to exist and the war – in which so many Americans had died fighting each other – would have been for nothing.
So Lincoln and Seward plunge headfirst into the political game. Republicans will vote for the amendment; the key is getting enough Democrats to defect and vote with them. Because it’s a lame-duck session – with a dozen or more Democrats serving their last days after being defeated in the November, 1864, election in which Lincoln was reelected – it’s possible to twist arms, offer patronage and even appeal to consciences to get enough Democratic votes.
Which is the meat of “Lincoln.” Spielberg finds ways to introduce literally dozens of characters, each of whom figures in this story: from Republican pragmatists to Democratic manipulators, from former slaves fighting for the Union to political fixers offering jobs and political appointments, from the Lincoln children to Lincoln himself. Spielberg does exceptional casting to make each character distinct and memorable, imprinting this moment in history on the viewer in ways that never feel didactic or pedantic.
Much of that has to do with Tony Kushner’s amazingly clear and articulately talkative script.
This review continues on my website.