Moviegoers who think Lincoln is about the life of Abraham Lincoln, his four-year presidency, or the Civil War, are in for a surprise when they go to the theater. Steven Spielberg’s latest offering could just as easily be called “The 13th Amendment” due to its almost singular focus, but in the process viewers are treated to a nuanced look at arguably the most romanticized president in American history.
Most of the movie takes place in January of 1865, when the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery was debated and approved by Congress. For a story about which most people already know the outcome, the plot develops with plenty of drama and suspense.
Daniel Day-Lewis is brilliant in his portrayal of Lincoln, depicting the quickly aging leader as a man torn by fights at home, on Capitol Hill, and on the battlefront of the soon-ending Civil War. The condensed timeline allows for character-driven exposure to Lincoln, who is presented as an offbeat genius, often aloof and taking frequent breaks from emotionally charged, sometimes urgent situations to tell stories.
While Spielberg has said he didn’t want to show Lincoln as perfect, the movie doesn’t do much to harm the president’s public image—unless you’re turned off by hard-nosed politics and backroom deals that border on bribery. History reveals Lincoln as a moderate conservative, fully landing on neither the side of slavery nor the Radical Republicans who pressured him to make abolition a war aim, even if it meant prolonging the violence.
Lincoln was personally opposed to slavery but believed abolishing it was incidental to the larger issue of keeping the union together. (In 1862 he wrote: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it.”) The movie portrays almost everyone in the president’s inner circle as trying to persuade Lincoln against the 13th Amendment in the face of his principled leadership. David Strathairn plays a reluctant ally in Secretary of State William Seward (who was actually an abolitionist), a close adviser and political enforcer of the president.
Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln admirably, although the 66-year-old actress looks much older than Mary at 46 when her husband died. Viewers are only given glimpses of the woman many believe was bipolar, and who was committed to a mental institution in 1875.
Despite these depictions, the production based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, adheres to a generally accurate account of historical events. Lincoln is a dialogue-heavy film in the mold of The King’s Speech (dramatic oratory pauses, cheering after speeches), but it moves at a faster pace, so the 150-minute run time passes quickly.
The movie includes some strong language for a PG-13 film, but violence is less than one might expect for a story set in the Civil War. Since the war is not the focus (there’s only one, brief battle scene), the gore is significantly less than in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan.
While it’s inaccurate to say Lincoln is “like a documentary” (as I overheard one moviegoer describe it), the film is very believable. Viewers will identify with the inflammatory rhetoric, partisan fights, and political gridlock that continued even when the blood of more than a half-million Americans had already been shed. Early in the movie Lincoln identifies the lame duck session of Congress as the leverage needed to pass the 13th Amendment: “There are 64 Democrats who don’t have to worry about keeping their jobs,” Lincoln said with beguiled optimism.
With a lame duck session upon us and our nation’s leaders facing their own set of crises today, perhaps Spielberg’s film will inspire lawmakers—including the president—into a deal-cutting mood that will save the union from a different kind of peril.