American democracy is messy, even bloody, and none such a trial for democracy than the American Civil War and the final end to slavery. It was a time that called for profound leadership and action. Would the promise of “all men are created equal” be realized? It was not clear in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was first elected. It was not clear in 1865, just after Lincoln’s re-election as the Civil War was finally coming to a close after four long years and 600,000 dead.
Still facing Democratic and conservative Republican opposition to immediate abolition, Lincoln worried the Emancipation Proclamation would not be enough to guarantee an end to slavery. An amendment to the Constitution would be the only way slavery could be abolished forever from American soil, he said. So began the struggle for votes in the House of Representatives to pass such an amendment in January 1865, just after Lincoln was re-elected. The Senate, dominated by the Republicans, had passed such an amendment earlier.
This intense political period is the setting for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Gone is the idealism that the Civil War was about anything else than slavery. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “A Team of Rivals,” Spielberg’s Lincoln is a valentine to the better angels of American history and the country’s most extraordinary president. With Tony Kushner’s screenplay, it’s an ode to the fierce urgency of equality, something he inspiringly portrays as part of the American character. Kushner’s words burn with fairness held deep in America’s breast, like a prairie fire that feeds the deep roots of native grasses and plants.
But it’s an actor’s tenor voice that brings those words to life. Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of the poet president is for the ages. It’s a gift from an Irish/Anglo son, with all the irony and naturalness that entails. Wasn’t Thomas Paine, one of the fiercest advocates of American Revolution ideals, a son of Britain? Here Lincoln is a living symbol – of, for, and by the people.
To say Day Lewis brings Lincoln to life may be an understatement. He channels the multi-faceted Lincoln: the doting and grieving father, the patient and tired husband, the deep and democratic thinker, the practical and savvy political operative, the humorous and human storyteller; but mostly, the tenacious advocate of freedom. This Irish actor stirs American pride.
Day Lewis is not alone in outstanding performances. Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln does something I never thought possible. She makes the first lady sympathetically complex. Field places Todd Lincoln amid the times and its heavy burdens of war, insurrection, grief, and fear, humanizing this often demonized woman.
Tommy Lee Jones, as radical abolitionist Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania – an overlooked historical figure, brings an oratorical punch to the big screen. David Straitharn as U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as son Robert Todd Lincoln, James Spader as Democratic vote wrangler W.N. Bilbo, and Gloria Reuben as former slave and the first lady’s confidant, Elizabeth Keckley, round out the cast with memorable performances.
There is close attention to historical detail, even including Ely S. Parker, the Native American lieutenant colonel who served with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the war. Portrayals of black Union soldiers in the fight for freedom and equality, along with the moving speech by Reuben’s Keckley, as well as other portrayals, shows the agency of Black Americans in the fight for freedom. However, the best known African American champion of slavery’s abolition, Frederick Douglass, is notably absent, even though Douglass and Lincoln had a working relationship.
I doubted Spielberg’s ability to pull off the dynamics and nuances of our 16th president and the times he lived in, yet, he did. “Lincoln” is his masterpiece. Even though we all know how the vote on the 13th Amendment turns out – Spielberg creates muscle-tightening tension during the movie’s two-and-a-half hours. That’s not to say that every scene is poetry. There are some awkward-feeling moments that drag. Yet, overall, he gives us plenty to ponder regarding the development of American democracy. In the tradition of say Earl Robinson and his “Ballad for Americans,” Aaron Copeland’s “Theme for the Common Man,” or even Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s “Let the Rail Splitter Awake,” Spielberg’s “Lincoln” taps into the deep well of diverse American culture that upholds the founding ideals of equality and fairness.
With the re-election of President Barack Obama, you can’t help but watch Lincoln and be confident these ideals still burn brightly in the heart and soul of America.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
2012, 150 minutes, PG-13
Photo: A still from “Lincoln.”