Lincoln Tempermental

Lincoln: written by Tony Kushner, based partially on Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Daniel Day Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Straitharn (William Seward), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln), James Spader (W.N. Bilbo), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens) and Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair) (2012): Spielberg and Kushner put together a movie that would have made Stanley Kramer (Judgement at Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind) proud, as it engages history in a most Kramerian way: it deploys an all-star cast playing real, or at least based-on-real, people; and the movie positively bristles with lengthy, literate speeches in the service of explaining historical events, political gamesmanship, and ideological viewpoints.

Lincoln focuses on a couple of months towards the end of the American Civil War, as Lincoln jockeys to get the anti-slavery 13th Amendment passed by Congress before the war ends, and brings dozens of pro-slavery Southern congressmen back into the U.S. government. To do so requires pretty much every political trick available to Lincoln, most notably the appointment of out-going Democratic congressmen to governmental patronage jobs in exchange for their ‘Yes’ votes. With the November elections over, but the new congressmen not slated to take over their seats until March, much of Lincoln’s strategy relies on these lame-duck political opponents.

Lincoln also knows that the war is all but over: the industrial North has begun to overwhelm the South. And a diplomatic party of Rebel politicians is on its way to negotiate a peace settlement. And so the need for speed and expediency increases, as does the need for political shenanigans in the service of a greater good.

Lincoln does a fine job of laying out the various factions in this fight. The radical abolitionists of the North want more than just the 13th Amendment, and they want it now. But trying for more will almost undoubted cause the anti-slavery movement to lose everything. And so Lincoln has to create a temporary voting coalition from disparate parts.

I think this is a very good movie about the pragmatic idealism of Lincoln and, by extension, other great politicians. Daniel Day-Lewis disappears into the role, his Lincoln a somewhat high-voiced man who slouches a lot because he’s taller than everyone around him. The other actors, especially Tommy Lee Jones as a radical abolitionist whose influence is needed and Sally Field as the distressed and vitriolic Mary Todd Lincoln, deliver fine performances.

Spielberg keeps his showiness to a minimum in service to the story: the chief stylistic device here is the abundance of low-lighting scenes that show just how physically dark the mid-19th century was after the sun went down. Metaphorically speaking, the characters are all submerged not only in the fog of war, but in the crepuscular world of political manuevering, a world where the sun never rises or sets completely.

One of the interesting things that comes out, in terms of parallels to today’s politics, is that small land-owning farmers were often against slavery because the slave plantations were the original Factory Farms. Their cheap labour allowed them to steamroll small farmers. It’s funny how circumstances change and remain the same in certain areas. Well, not funny ‘Ha ha.’ Recommended.

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