The political arena is an insufferable one. Filled with double speak and seemingly unreachable contingencies, politics is the home to vermin who claim to speak for the people. Now, let me take off my “overtly cynical” hat and admit that politicians are a necessary evil. No matter how inundated we are with broken promises, there’s something romantic about an amendment being passed at the expense of personal differences. This mystic romanticism is undoubtedly found in Steven Spielberg’s cinematic ode to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is an uncommon biopic by most measures. Obviously you have a historically significant character at the center, but instead of focusing on Lincoln’s entire human existence, Spielberg examines the 16th president’s incorruptible soul through the laborious process of passing the 13th Amendment in 1865. For those who slept during history class, the 13th Amendment dictated the abolishing of slavery. Considering the Civil War was on the verge of ending in 1865, thus likely forcing Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation into retirement, passing the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives in January of said year was a significant priority for Lincoln and his staff.
Obviously we know how it all ends, but very few of us, especially this reviewer, know the grizzly details that made up this momentous achievement in American history. As mentioned before, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), with his powerful stature and amusing anecdotes, intends to inject his country with a sense of direction and hope by passing the 13th Amendment through the hands of faithless radical republicans, lame duck democrats, and war-torn politicians that ache for a cease-fire. Needing about twenty swing votes to make his dream a reality, Lincoln walks an arduous appellate path, hoping various detractors will withdraw their political daggers. Unfortunately, rhetoric and progressive thinking fail to compel dissenters, so Lincoln unofficially elicits the help of three hilarious scoundrels (played deliciously by John Hawkes, James Spader, and Tim Blake Nelson) to convince lame duck politicians that a favorable vote for the amendment could lead to posh government jobs. While jostling for swing votes, and in spite of the Radical Republicans vouching the amendment solely on peace being negotiated with the Confederacy, Lincoln aims to circumvent peace talks at all costs. Lincoln’s quick wit allows him to jump around discussions like a nimble acrobat, which helps him inoculate any morsel of damning information that may slip into the hand of one enemy in particular: contentious democrats.
As dictated through Spielberg’s lens and Tony Kushner’s efficiently dense screenplay, concessions and questionable tactics shaded Lincoln’s feverish attempt to abolish slavery. The biggest concession facing Lincoln, as well as his amendment’s biggest supporter, über abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), is the notion that the amendment is merely a starting block, and not a piece of legislation that grants equal rights (e.g. the right to vote) to African-Americans. Amidst the political turmoil and underhanded commitments, Lincoln also caters his attention to his military hungry son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and his emotionally fragile wife, Mary (Sally Field). Admittedly, Lincoln’s family life isn’t nearly as interesting as his struggle to pass the 13th Amendment, which is ripe with rapturous debates and tremendous acting. The latter should come as no surprise when you have a cast as talented as this film does. The centerpiece is obviously Daniel Day-Lewis, who physically morphs into America’s bearded guild with ease. Day-Lewis’ imposing frame and stern eyes have a tendency to shift a soft-spoken man into an immensely powerful beast, one that refuses to quit when the political bayonet begins to puncture his heart. To counteract Lincoln’s strength, Day-Lewis wears the overbearing responsibility to a grieving country on his face. Worn and aged from an unmatched level of stress, Day-Lewis portrays a stoic man that’s bending but not breaking.
Even though Day-Lewis gives a memorable performance, getting lost in his recognition is Tommy Lee Jones’ phenomenally compassionate and conflicted performance as Stevens. Whether he’s in a tumultuous verbal tussle with dissenting opinions or reconciling his moral code with the verbiage of the 13th Amendment, Jones commands every second he’s granted. Through Jones’ performance we gain much of our access to Kushner’s interest in detailing the moments where personal pride concedes to altruism. Through the fantastic and appropriately subdued Steve Spielberg, Kushner’s words come to life. In most of his period pieces, Spielberg isn’t afraid of saccharine flair, but here he lets the legend of Lincoln, as well as the 13th Amendment’s significance, speak for itself. Even John Williams forgoes his usual emotionally exploitative core in favor of quiet cues and simple piano notes. Spielberg could’ve given us an over the top epitaph for Lincoln or fashioned the 16th president’s persona to the bloody battlefields of the Civil War, but he bravely chose to weave Lincoln’s valor with the process of passing an amendment, which could be argued as Lincoln’s finest hour. And it’s in Lincoln’s finest hour that we see the undeterred, fragmented man that he was. Moreover, it’s a moment that shows us that absolving the unlawful begins with a collection of people abstaining from their personal differences.