Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln: A Man (and a Film) for the Ages

November 7, 2012

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is a compelling drama that focuses on the 16th President's tumultuous final months in office. The rough outlines of the story (or, at least, its conclusions) are known by all, but Lincoln nicely fills in the picture. It's not easy to make an engaging film about politics (without gunfights, explosions, and car chases), but Spielberg manages to pull it off admirably. Lincoln puts the political debate over slavery in its historical context. Events do not happen in a vacuum, and the Emancipation Proclamation was no exception.

It's easy to forget, when in a high school history class or reading a textbook, that the founders of our country were real people. We know them for their achievements, the highlights of history and thumbnail sketches. Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in a storm while planning to open the first post office and work on French diplomacy. George Washington crossing the Delaware river and defying the British. According to noted historian Sarah Palin, Paul Revere famously rode his horse by night to warn the British that they would not be taking away American's right to bear arms.

And, of course, Lincoln freed the slaves. But he didn't do it alone-in fact he almost didn't do it at all, as Lincoln reveals. The film begins with Lincoln being re-elected the previous November, but lacking the nearly two dozen votes needed to pass legislation outlawing slavery. Lincoln did not free any slaves at the time. Blacks were already free in the northern states, and the Emancipation Proclamation was not recognized by the Confederacy and was therefore unenforceable. The trick was to pass the law before the north won the war, because once the southern states would be reunited with the Union they would have a vote and surely do their best to block any abolition legislation.

Lincoln reminds us that politics were just as nasty and divisive 150 years ago as they are today. Compromises must be reached, favors must be called in, and people must often be bribed to do the right thing. Things that seem self-evidently moral and just with the benefit of historical hindsight were not necessarily so back at the time.

Daniel Day-Lewis's Lincoln is a pragmatic, thoughtful character and of the actor's greatest roles. The acting is uniformly excellent; like Day-Lewis as Lincoln, the vast supporting cast (including Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, and Tim Blake Nelson) are recognizable stars in their own right but immediately disappear into their characters.

Little is conveyed of Lincoln's life before this, or even his death and its consequences. Lincoln is killed off-screen (probably just as well, since it would detract from the larger story of abolition), but we're left to wonder whether or not his assassination was spurred by the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, or something completely unrelated. A few flaws aside, Lincoln is a powerful film that humanizes both Abraham Lincoln and those who helped and slavery in the United States. The film was written by Tony Kushner, based partly on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.