"Lincoln" is a quietly moving, serious film for grown-ups. It has its flaws, chiefly that it's too worshipful of its subject. Director Steven Spielberg lays on the hagiography very thick. Surely Abraham Lincoln must have had one or two flaws; you'd never know it from watching this film. It could be called "Saint Lincoln."
Another major weakness is the unbelievably old-fashioned style, including nauseating orchestration that's filled with one musical cliche after another. This kind of movie music was cliche by 1960, for God's sake. At times the music is so thick with sentimentality that it almost seems Spielberg is doing a parody of the 1950s Hollywood "prestige picture."
If one tunes out the mawkish music, church-like reverential tone, and overall didacticism, there actually is much to enjoy and think about in "Lincoln." The central story line focuses on the extremely difficult campaign to pass the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned slavery. In early 1865, with the Civil War in its final days, President Lincoln pulled out all the stops to get the amendment through the House of Representatives.
The film looks at this legislative campaign in terrific detail. Presumably, the history is right. The screenplay (by playwright Tony Kushner) is based in part on a serious historical book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." Goodwin has an excellent reputation among historians, so I'm presuming the film's historical details are reasonably accurate.
The Republican Party at the time (Lincoln's party) had two distinct factions: upper-crust Conservatives and populist Radicals. Both were opposed to slavery, but slavery wasn't a top priority for Conservatives. Their biggest concern was winning the war. Led by Thaddeus Stevens (played with wicked aplomb by Tommy Lee Jones), the Radical Republicans were first and foremost abolitionists. The Democratic Party at the time was for the most part pro-South and pro-slavery.
To get the Amendment passed, Lincoln had to unite Republicans, no easy task, and persuade about 20 Democrats to switch sides. The film humorously depicts some of the untoward aspects of the campaign. Lincoln quietly hires a few unsavory characters (one played hilariously by James Spader) to "buy" votes by offering wavering Democrats jobs in the executive branch.
Less humorous is Lincoln's effort to prolong the war in order to get the amendment passed. The Confederacy secretly sends a delegation to Washington to negotiate an end to the war, and Lincoln refuses to let them enter the city! He is concerned, rightly so, that if the war ends, the amendment would lose momentum. He maintains the ruse that abolition is necessary to end the war.
It's quite stunning for this to be presented in a positive tone. The film depicts Lincoln as making abolition a do-or-die priority. He even commits an impeachable offense by lying about the peace initiative undertaken by the Confederacy. That's how far he's willing to go to modernize the country and protect "Negroes" (as African-Americans were known at the time) from re-enslavement after the war.
(The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Confederate states only temporarily, to aid the war effort.)
I've never before seen a film sink its teeth into complex political machinations, much less do it in an entertaining way. Even though one already knows how it turns out, the House vote is still a nail-biter. Spielberg also effectively conveys the momentousness of the vote. It's hard to imagine how history would have turned out if the 13th Amendment had not passed, and it easily could have gone the other way. The amendment passed the House by a razor-thin margin.
What would America have become if slavery had not been abolished? Would the country have survived? If the country had collapsed, what would have replaced it? How would the world be different if there had been no America in the 20th century? The only comparable turning point I can think of is World War II. What would the world be like today if Hitler had won? I shudder at the thought.
What I really appreciate about "Lincoln" is that it operates on several other levels as well. Its principal concern is the 13th Amendment, but the film elegantly explores a range of minor themes as well.
Sally Field delivers an arresting, unpretty, thought-provoking performance as Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd. She is presented as fiercely intelligent, deeply engaged with the war and the general political issues of the day, and shattered by the tragic death of her 11-year-old son, William.
The film doesn't provide details, but they are as follows: William's death occurred in early 1862, one year after the family moved to the White House. This was not the family's first tragedy, however. The film doesn't mention it, but the Lincolns first lost a son in 1850. He was three years old.
Mary Todd, believe it or not, would go on to bury a third son, age 18, six years after witnessing the murder of her husband. This is a woman whose life was filled with unspeakable tragedy. She herself died in 1882, age 63, with only one of her four children surviving her.
The film could easily have ignored Mary Todd, but it digs into her character with real seriousness. Other minor female characters are also looked at in an illuminating way. The film seems to say that while American women weren't voting in the 19th century, they certainly weren't on the political sidelines. They participated forthrightly in political discussions and had a major role in determining the course of history. Their husbands and sons may have been the ones voting, but to a large degree the family decided together how the men would vote. I love the film's overall approach to women.
Lincoln's eldest son (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is another engaging minor character. This college-age boy wants desperately to join the Union Army, but his parents forbid it. They cannot bear to lose another son. He tries to abide by his parents' wishes, but eventually he explodes, defying his father's authority. One can palpably feel the agonizing life-and-death struggles of this 19th-century family, and by extension all the other families of the era.
The almost complete absence of African-American characters is a bitter disappointment. The subject is slavery, for goodness sake. No slave characters? I'm sure black audiences have been outraged about this. Dejected even. In this day and age, a film about slavery can still be written with no black characters. Unbelievable. Here's a story about the freedom of African-Americans, and they don't enter the story! They just appear in the background, the subject of white people's discussions.
Mrs. Lincoln's black maid does have some weight as a character, but that's about it. She has one beautiful scene where Lincoln asks her if she is fearful of what's going to happen to "her people" if freedom comes. In that exchange, one sees how awesomely transformative abolition was. No one knew what life would feel like in the new day. What would black people do? How would white and black people live side by side for the first time? Would black men have to be given the vote? What impact would that have?
The open-endedness of it all awed Lincoln, even frightened him from time to time. Early in the film he has a dream, a sequence strikingly presented by Spielberg. Lincoln is alone on the deck of a large ship barreling forward at warp speed, powered by some other-worldly engine. He stands alone in the cold night, struggling to maintain courage as he races into an unknown future.
"Lincoln" has its flaws, but it's a top-flight film overall. It's encouraging that a film of this nature would garner so much awards attention and become a commercial hit. I never would have expected ordinary Americans to flock to this the way they have. "Lincoln" is good for America.