Spoiler alert: Abraham Lincoln dies in the end.
It’s a shame that Steven Spielberg’s new film about the last four months of Lincoln’s life is coming out after the election, but that’s got to be a calculated, cynical move on someone’s part. The movie, which features yet another magnificent performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, might as well be called The 13th Amendment; it’s all about the garnering of votes to pass legislation, about debate and subterfuge and deceit and moral victory. In short, it’s about politics and how little things have changed in more than 150 years.
For Lincoln, which opens Friday, Nov. 16, Spielberg worked from a script by Tony Kushner, whose Pulitzer-Prize-winning play Angels in America was the perfect model. That play is a document of a snapshot in history, as is the case with Lincoln.
As things open, the Civil War is drawing to a close, Lincoln has won reelection, and though his advisors advise against it, he’s determined to push the 13th Amendment—the one that abolished slavery—through Congress. Why, you might ask, would anyone oppose the president on this issue? For one thing, there’s a war on. For another, America was considerably more racist then than it is now. Most people just wanted the war to be over, and the general idea was that if it were to end on its own, everyone would be happy. The Northerners could stop sending their children to die, and the Southerners would return to the union and get to keep their slaves. This means that Lincoln was forced to push the issue fast and hard to get a constitutional amendment passed before the war ended, even if that meant allowing the war to linger just long enough that all the votes could be counted. That’s a pretty tragic place to be, especially for someone with as much compassion as the 16th president.
Essentially, you have two stories in Lincoln: There’s the story of the man, his long-suffering wife (Sally Field) and his two sons, including his eldest, Robert, who’s played by an underused Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And there’s the story of the Republican Lincoln conspiring with his secretary of state, William Seward (David Strathairn), and Seward’s accomplices (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) to convince just enough Democrats to cross party lines and vote to end slavery. All of that is intriguing and, yes, important. Day-Lewis creates a Lincoln who’s real, sincere and an apt counterpart to Thaddeus Stevens, the abolitionist legislator largely lost to history’s whims, played wonderfully by Tommy Lee Jones, who holds court in every one of his scenes.
But, at the end of the day, it’s Day-Lewis you’ll most remember. He gives Spielberg a gift in the form of a performance genuine enough to overshadow the film’s self-importance. Lincoln is a fascinating look at the machinations of the abolishment of slavery, but the movie is often as calculated as its release date and as calculating as Lincoln himself is portrayed in the film. Despite the subject matter and despite Day-Lewis’ performance (I’d happily see him receive the Best Actor statue once again), the film’s hampered by its own manifest destiny as a Very Important Movie. Every role of note is played by someone famous, which means that plenty of roles—including Ulysses S. Grant, played by Jared Harris (who was Layne Price in Mad Men)— are little more than window dressing.
I’d put Lincoln at No. 1 on my own top-10 list of U.S. presidents. I’d vote for him now, despite his party affiliation. And Day-Lewis makes him even more likeable than the guy we already imagine him to be. Still, Lincoln, the man, and Lincoln, the movie, are two different things, and the latter sometimes feels a little manipulative. But, hey, that’s politics. Not much has changed at all.