November 17, 2012 -- Steven Spielberg's new masterpiece, “Lincoln” is all about the politics of ending slavery, or, as Lincoln the vampire hunter would put it, to drive a stake through the heart of slavery once and for all. We tend to see Lincoln as a sort of American saint, but this film shows us Lincoln's personal side as well as his crafty political and legal skills. This kind of story could give politics and lawyers a good name (the same can be said of another anti-slavery movie “Amazing Grace”).
Daniel Day-Lewis (“There Will Be Blood”) turns in another Oscar-worthy performance as Lincoln. Another Oscar-winner, Sally Field (“Forrest Gump”) matches him scene for scene as Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. The story is based on a biography of Lincoln, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It takes place during the final four months of Lincoln's life, near the end of the Civil War.
This story gets right down to the nitty-gritty of politics, including political patronage jobs to buy votes and some political pressure that borders on blackmail. Lincoln got a group of guys sort of like Nixon's plumbers to secure the 20 votes from Democrats needed to pass the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery. They offered jobs in the government, tax collecting jobs, postmaster jobs, all sorts of jobs to outgoing Democrats so they would vote the amendment. In those days, Democrats were pro-slavery and Republicans were anti-slavery.
The plumbers were having a hard time getting Democrats, even lame-duck ones, to vote for the amendment. One Democrat even took a shot at one of the plumbers. Some of the Democrats who agreed to vote for the amendment starting trying to back out of their agreements when pressured by their fellow Democrats. Lincoln himself personally contacted some members of Congress to persuade them to vote for the measure. One of the many things this film does to personalize Lincoln is to show his sense of humor. Lincoln liked to tell stories, some of them quite earthy.
Lincoln also agreed to meet with a delegation of Southern representatives in return for the support of Preston Blair (played by Hal Holbrook of “Into the Wild”), an influential Republican who could deliver the Republican vote. This was a tricky matter, since support for the amendment would collapse if it became known that Lincoln was negotiating with Southern representatives to end the war. One of the selling points of the amendment was that it would hasten the end of the war. Lincoln had to do some tricky maneuvering to keep the Southern delegation from killing the amendment.
All of this is happening just before the end of the war. One of the reasons Lincoln is pushing hard to get the amendment passed is that once the southern states are back in the Union, they won't vote for the amendment to abolish slavery and it might pass after that. Lincoln was also aware his Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier might be struck down in the courts. This is the last chance for the abolitionists. The Senate had already passed the amendment. Now it was up to the House.
Chief among the abolitionists in Congress is Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones of “Hope Springs”) the powerful Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He is known as a Radical Republican for his views on racial equality and his proposals for harsh penalties against the South after the Civil War. Lincoln needs Stevens to tone down his rhetoric during the debate on the amendment lest he alienate some of the amendment's more shaky supporters. Stevens is a great debater and an abolitionist firebrand. He does not want to moderate his speech.
If all this sounds like a lot of politics, it is, but Spielberg makes it into a compelling narrative, thanks to some additional conflict between Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln and Lincoln's oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt of “Looper”) who wants to join the army over the opposition of his parents. The very talented cast of this film is put to good use, thanks to Spielberg's sure direction and a strong script, written by Tony Kushner (“Munich”). The talent-laden cast includes John Hawkes, David Strathairn, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and Kevin Kline. This film rates an A.
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