Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Tony Kushner from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals”
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael Stuhlbarg, James Spader, Jared Harris, David Strathairn.
Screened at: Regal E-Walk, NYC, 11/7/12.
Opens: November 9, 2012
Decades after having penned “Angels in America,” one of the seminal plays of the last century and a very American one at that, Tony Kushner went to work on the script for a movie on yet another very American theme, about one of our own angels. In fact if President Lincoln is not literally an angel, he is considered by some, at least on our side of the Mason-Dixon line, to be the greatest of all chief executives. He freed the slaves in the rebellious states, theoretically, via the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and fought to add the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which put an end to the Peculiar Institution forever. By doing so, he set our country on a path to increasingly democratic reforms, a nation which would later give the former slaves citizenship and the right to vote, then proceeded to grant suffrage to women, greater rights to minorities in the Title IV of the Civil rights Act of 1964, all culminating, if you will, on the increasing acceptance by the American people of greater freedoms for all, including the right of people to love whomever they choose.
From Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” as adapted by Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie “Lincoln” focuses on one principal activity, which was the president’s role in convincing a sharply divided House of Representatives to vote for the Amendment already passed by the Senate because Lincoln’s party had the numbers there. His actions in this area brings to mind the political genius of Lyndon Baines Johnson in pushing through Title IV of the Civil Rights Act and, much more recently the pressure put upon Congress by President Barack Obama to get a comprehensive health bill through a Congress as sharply divided as the body confronted by Lincoln.
In one sense, “Lincoln” is a continuation of director Spielberg’s work on issues of civil rights. His “The Color Purple” deals with the lives of black American females in the 1930s while “Amistad” takes on a failed mutiny on board a slave ship in 1839. In another sense, however, “Lincoln” has only a smidgen of physical action, turning the film into what some will dismiss as altogether static and most will agree is lacking in commercial value. (Whether teachers will take their students to the movie is almost a given, at least in those schools not obsessed with teaching to the test.)
“Lincoln” is anchored by an Oscar-worthy performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, considered by some to be the world’s greatest film actor, a fellow who is made up by the studio crew so well that you’d swear that our sixteenth president has been reincarnated. A president given to endless talk with a preference for making his points via anecdotes (such as one about why a portrait of George Washington is on the wall of a particular toilet), Lincoln, a Republican, favored the adoption of the amendment to abolish slaves as did many in his own party, but to get the required two-thirds vote of the House of Representatives thereby sending it to the states for ratification, he had to bring in some Democrats. (If this sounds quite a bit like President Obama’s struggle to push through his health care bill, which barely squeaked through without the vote of a single Republican, then you’re up on current events.) Nor was Lincoln so idealistic that he’d be opposed to using corrupt means to buy the votes, such as by promising outgoing, “lame duck” members in House of patronage jobs as soon as their terms would expire.
We watch as he painstakingly uses political figures from Secretary of State Seward (David Straithairn) and others in his party to visit the swing votes (sound familiar?) of Democrats to convince them of the need to vote aye on the proposed legislation.
The drama, such as it is, comes across through the talk. Particularly impressive is a bewigged Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, intent on getting the amendment through, albeit by compromising in his language to the House: he agreed that he was in favor of giving “Negroes” equality under the law but not necessarily equality with whites as human beings—which sounds like splitting hairs. The climax comes not from the burning of Petersburg, Virginia, which ended the Civil War, not from the assassination of the president, which is handled off-screen, but on the actual roll-call voting of the over two hundred delegates. Prominent roles are taken by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the president’s son, who quit Harvard to fight despite the pleas of his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, played by a bereaved Sally Field who did not want to lose another son following the death of her Willie, by Hal Holbrook as a representative supporting the bill, and by rivals like George Pendleton, played by Peter McRobbie.
This movie is for a specialized audience, one that can sit almost still for 145 minutes listening to history being made and not requiring melodrama such as a presidential assassination or the barrages of firing on the battlefield. Other will find it lifeless, the sort of production that could have been mounted on a Broadway stage.
Rated PG-13. 145 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Acting – A
Story – B-
Technical – B
Overall – B