Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Honest Abe


Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln on the battlefield. (Photo: David James, DreamWorks)
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Easily the pinnacle of director Steven Spielberg's considerable canon for adults, Lincoln commences on a Civil War battlefield with hand-to-hand combat as vivid and hard-to-stomach as any in the opening frames of Saving Private Ryan .

Particularly memorable is the shot of a black Union soldier pressing his boot down on the head of a Confederate rifleman, crushing and drowning the young rebel. Just before the montage becomes too intense, Spielberg switches the scene to the mournful sight of our 16th president, in an incendiary career turn from multi-Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, wandering through the now-silent battlefield. Lincoln is approached by two black soldiers who, while respectful, pepper their emancipator with questions about when they will get their full due as citizens of the Republic.

Then follows one of this engaging history film's most breathtaking moments, as the young black volunteers are joined by two white soldier boys, and the four regale Mr. Lincoln with passages from his Gettysburg Address, sort of 1860s-style tweeting. If Lincoln ended right there, it would still qualify as this award season's most essential viewing.

In a truly epic first act, the equal of anything in the David Lean canon, Spielberg and his screenwriting collaborator, gay playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America), frame the awful dilemma Lincoln faced in what would prove to be the last four months of his life, January-April 15, 1865. The president had to bring the horrendous fighting to a victorious conclusion, thus preserving the Union, and ensure the end of slavery, so shamefully protected in the original Constitution.

Based on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln soars as we watch the president out-maneuver and outwit the ambitious, fractious men he has chosen for his war cabinet. Half the members of the cabinet had fought old Abe for the Republican nomination, and many still felt themselves his superior. Day-Lewis excels as a shrewd old country lawyer who can indulge the vanities of powerful if petty colleagues while always having the last word.

Day-Lewis' wiry frame didn't require much dressing up for Lincoln. A story circulating on set claims Spielberg took a phone-camera picture of Day-Lewis in which the actor's silhouette so closely resembled Lincoln's that the image might have fooled even Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. Day-Lewis clinches his tour de force with a high-pitched Lincoln voice, in another vocal league from his voice-of-God for the bellicose oilman in There Will Be Blood . His Lincoln can both be a cracker-barrel philosopher with shaggy-dog stories culled from his days as a small-town lawyer, and then, turning on a dime, become a ferocious Old Testament prophet as he argues for passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.

The fight over the amendment in a bitterly divided House of Representatives dominates a good portion of the film. Spielberg and Kushner demonstrate how deftly Lincoln held himself above the fray and the down-and-dirty job of extracting votes for the amendment from lame-duck Democrats who expected compensation for their trouble. One of the film's funniest scenes has Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) urging three rascally political operatives (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) to be cautious with their knavery.

"The President is never to be mentioned, nor I. You're paid for your discretion."

"He can have that for nothing. What we need money for is bribes, to speed things up."

"Nothing that is strictly illegal."

"It's not illegal to bribe a congressman, they starve otherwise."

"We're offering patronage jobs to the Dems that vote yes, and nothing more."

"Congressmen come cheap, 2,000 bucks is all you need."

This bit that could have been cribbed from Mark Twain paves the way for a soaring moment when "the august body" finally does the right thing, even if for somewhat dubious motives.

Among Lincoln's many stirring portraits, Tommy Lee Jones has a cranky turn playing the radical abolitionist legislator Thaddeus Stevens, whose vision for racial equality would inspire fistfights even in today's more enlightened times. Jones, with his ferocious stares and volcanic monologues, equals his previous high mark as the racist baseball polecat Ty Cobb. It's a great sight to view him sleeping with his bi-racial housekeeper. Sally Field revives her career as the emotionally fragile Mary Todd Lincoln, a first lady battling her husband's attempts to allow their oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to join the fighting.

Wikipedia lists more than 26 films dealing with the Great Emancipator, from the sublime work of Hollywood's golden age Young Abe Lincoln to the bizarre Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The Spielberg/Kushner version is happily the only indispensable Lincoln.

The late queer scholar C.A. Tripp stirred the Lincoln waters a decade back with his well-sourced brief that a young Lincoln shared a bed for four years with his closest friend, Joshua Speed. Kushner says that to him, the evidence of Lincoln's sexuality is contradictory and inconclusive. Someday we'll get that Lincoln on a sizable screen. Until then, this emotionally thrilling and morally challenging slice of history will do very well indeed.


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