Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" might just as well have been titled "The Passing of the 13th Amendment", as the bulk of the film centers around the circumstances leading up to its passing (which abolished slavery in the United States). As the movie opens, Lincoln (as portrayed by the gifted actor Daniel Day-Lewis) is speaking with some former slaves-turned-union-soldiers about the lack of equality between blacks and whites. It's an unlikely scenario to say the least, but it shows the direction the film is going to be taking us. In Spielberg's hands, Lincoln's mythos gets treated to a hollywood romanticism and the results harken back to the director's earlier output.
The events of the movie take place just after Lincoln's re-election. The civil war is in it's 4th bloody year, and there is dissent in the house of representatives. President Lincoln expects the war to end within a month, and also expects that the Emancipation Proclamation will be discarded by the courts once the war is over and the southern slave states return to the union. In order to keep the slaves free, Lincoln begins a desperate push to pass the 13th amendment. However, many democratic representatives oppose the amendment, because it might hurt the chance for peace and an end to the war, but mainly they oppose it because of their own racial bigotry and prejudice. Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward then launch a plan to bribe, buy out, and in general influence the votes needed to pass the bill, sending out hired guns (led by the suitably sleezy James Spader) to try and pursuade the representatives. Meanwhile, republican party founder Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) will offer his support of the amendment only if every avenue of peace has been extinguished. He meets with southern diplomats and arranges a peace negotiation. Lincoln must get the bill passed before the end of the war and has the delegates delayed while the amendment is still up for the vote. But will the delay be enough?
Well, anyone who knows anything about history already knows what happens, so in that manner, this movie is a bit of a rhetorical exercise. Lincoln is dutifully bathed in reverential light, but these real life characters never felt quite real, just like actors on a stage. Spielberg only momentarily touches real, live human beings on the screen. In passing, we only get brief glimpses of genuine human beings, whether it's Mary Todd Lincoln's emotional breakdowns ("I'm going to be known as the crazy woman who made your life miserable"), or Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) revelatory love affair, or, greatest of all, the man behind the beard and hat. Lincoln as portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis is a mixture of the historical and the human, and it's sometimes an ackward mix. The make-up job, with Day-Lewis' eyes peering out of Lincoln's face can be distracting (at least I was) and sometimes his portrayal of Lincoln's mannerisms were downright creepy. And yet, sometimes they were charming and heart-breaking. But in the end, if anything is flawed in this movie, it's not the performances but the directing. Spielberg can't decide what kind of film he's trying to make, something of humanistic realism, with all it's dirt and beauty, or a reverential hollywood mega-production with sweeping orchestration and grandiose sentiment. This is a good, very nearly great film, that's just hindered by a lack of cohesive vision.