Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's history play was many years in the making, in part because the once-mightiest Spielberg had a hard time getting backing for a history film. The delays cost him a star -- Liam Neeson -- who is ironically more bankable now than he was when Spielberg first proposed him for the title role. Given Lincoln's long road to the big screen, it's another irony that people this November are debating its relevance to current politics -- and a further irony that it is relevant. As it happens, Spielberg and Kushner have made a cinematic intervention, intentional or not, in a debate, not between the Democratic and Republican parties, but within the Democratic party and the larger liberal movement. This debate has gone on since the 2008 presidential primaries and will certainly continue into Barack Obama's newly-won second term. It's less a debate over personalities, though it originated in comparisons between Obama and then-Senator, now-Secretary Clinton, than over practical politics. Critics of Obama -- one of the most persistent and verbose is the historian Sean Wilentz -- worry that the President is too much a creature of rhetoric and the favorite of people too enamored with the supposed power of rhetoric. These critics feel that many liberals naively expect to rely too much on the power of ideas and argument, and are reduced to bitter helplessness when their eminently reasonable arguments fail to persuade intractable dissidents. Wilentz himself wrote a long, somewhat controversial piece that could serve, perhaps as much as Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-selling Team of Rivals, as a source text for Lincoln, criticizing a perceived perception among liberals that Abraham Lincoln relied entirely on his admittedly formidable powers of persuasive rhetoric -- that he saved the Union by delivering the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, and found answers to all problems in his speeches, if not in the funny stories he loved to tell. Wilentz invokes a more Machiavellian Lincoln, one who wasn't above various forms of sub-rhetorical persuasion and manipulation when those were necessary to realize his goals. For Wilentz's Lincoln, a noble goal justifies a broader, more effective range of means than many liberals permit themselves or think appropriate in politics. Wilentz's article was virtually a preview of Spielberg's film.
Kushner's screenplay focuses on the month of January 1865, after Lincoln's re-election but before his re-inauguaration, which under the old rules would take place in March. The Union is on the brink of attacking the Confederacy's last functioning port city, while the Confederate government has dropped hints of readiness to sue for peace. The President (Daniel Day-Lewis) is determined to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, already approved by the Senate, approved by the House of Representatives on its second try. Lincoln's Republican party controls the House, but he needs a two-thirds majority for a constitutional amendment and thus needs support from a largely-racist Democratic party for an amendment banning slavery. Lincoln faces a dilemma. There's a possibility that the war could end that month if he meets with the Confederate negotiators. But he worries that, should the war end before the amendment is ratified, ratification will never happen because he has justified action against slavery, including his earlier Emancipation Proclamation, as wartime measures. He worries especially that should the law revert to the status quo ante bellum, blacks already freed under the Proclamation could be returned to slavery. On the other hand, perpetuating the war for any period of time carries a personal risk. His eldest son Robert (Joseph [are you sure that isn't Robin Todd Lincoln?] Gordon-Levitt) is ashamed of missing the war in college and wants to enlist, while the prospect of losing another son -- a younger child died of illness in Abe's first term -- could well break Mrs. Lincoln's (Sally Field) mind, if not the Lincolns' marriage. The President's plan is to stall the peace negotiations and deny the existence of Confederate negotiators as long as possible while cajoling the necessary Democrats into supporting the amendment and dissuading Robert from enlisting.
What did you expect Old Abe would do? Wrap everything up with one big speech? History isn't so easy, and he must find different ways of persuading those Democrats. Since many are lame ducks, having lost their re-election bids last November, he hopes to entice them with promises of federal patronage. For further enticement Lincoln relies on some experienced political fixers summoned by Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), a former party boss in New York State. When Seward tells the President that he's going to Albany to recruit some experienced ruthless scoundrels for the work, the Albany audience with which I watched the movie broke out in knowing laughter. The fixers, led by James Spader, are the comedy relief of the picture, but they prove a serious point: the end of slavery justifies these means. On occasions like this, you don't necessarily need to get everyone to share your opinion; you just need them to vote your way for whatever reason. This is the point modern writers like Sean Wilentz think that most modern liberals miss. Those modern liberals are represented on screen by "Radical" Republican floor leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones in a Gene Hackman-Lex Luthor apparatus), an uncompromising firebrand who favors complete and immediate racial equality, beyond what most politicians in 1865 could support. The Radicals oppose the "conservative" Republicans led by eminence grise Francis Preston Blair (former Lincoln Hal Holbrook) and consider Lincoln an unprincipled trimmer for failing to go all out for full equality. Lincoln's men in Congress fear that Stevens's support for the amendment could drive conservative Republicans away and make it impossible to close deals with those Democrats. The challenge for Lincoln is to get Stevens to tone down his rhetoric -- in fact to deny what he really believes -- in order to convince wavering legislators that the amendment institutes only equality before the law, not "equality in all things." Even after securing Stevens's humiliating compliance, Lincoln must still resort to a "lawyer's dodge" at the last minute as rumors of peace negotiations threaten to postpone the final vote on the amendment....
Spielberg sometimes strains within the self-imposed straitjacket of Kushner's screenplay. He wants to show more than the script requires and gets away with a brief opening battle scene that proves a flashback narrated by a black soldier in the true opening scene. Interestingly, Spielberg invokes The Godfather by pulling back from a close-up of the soldier to reveal the back of the star's head while the soldier goes on with a functional equivalent of an "I believe in America" speech, which Lincoln finally answers with small talk and a joke about his untrimmable hair. Lincoln's notorious jokes become a kind of Tarantinian device, serving as showoff business for Day-Lewis and within the story as a distancing and delaying tactic, stuff to fill the air as Lincoln contemplates his true answer or his next move. At these moments Day-Lewis approaches the enigmatic Lincoln of Gore Vidal's novel, perhaps the definitive fictional representation of Old Abe. But the main work of the film is to show a Lincoln made neither of marble or pure spirit, an intimately vulnerable man who can slap his son in public and threaten his wife with the madhouse in moments of anger -- someone who couldn't find an answer for everything with words. In a year of strong male star turns Day-Lewis, already a two-time Oscar winner, deserves consideration for a third along with such likely front-runners as Joaquin Phoenix (for The Master) and Denzel Washington (for Flight). People have commented about the age difference between Day-Lewis and his Mary, Sally Field, not to mention the age difference between Field and Mary Lincoln circa 1865, but as a two-time winner herself Field is a worthy consort and definitely delivers on whatever promise Spielberg saw in her. They're supported by a sprawling ensemble operating in different modes, from Jones's grandilouqent bluster to Spader's clowning, yet combining for a mostly convincing evocation of 19th century speech. The few anachronistic exceptions ("Slavery, sir? It's done.") can be forgiven.
Kushner and Spielberg succeed indisputably in making the points they want to make about Lincoln and the art of political persuasion. If there's a problem with Lincoln, it's that, after the point is made, the film goes on -- and as it goes on Spielberg slips his restraints and goes hunting after epiphanies. Worse, the director decides he can't leave without addressing the assassination, but goes at it indirectly, focusing on a child's grief in a theater other than Ford's before flashing back to the Second Inaugural, Lincoln reappearing in a flame for some parting comments as if this were The Greatest Story Ever Told. A more persistent problem for Spielberg is his inability to imagine a movie without hearing the music of John Williams. The old maestro contributes an understated yet predictably Ken-Burnsian score, intruding politely yet predictably at all the predictable moments, that proves again that Williams hasn't had much new to say musically for some time now. The music, however, is a superficial flaw, and the film's other faults keep their distance from an impressive core, leaving Lincoln as one of the superior American history films of recent times. It isn't as powerful as Spielberg and Kushner's previous collaboration because Lincoln doesn't give Spielberg as many opportunities for creative, forceful pictorial storytelling as Munich did, but after seeing Lincoln the word from Kushner that he's started work on a third screenplay for Spielberg comes as welcome news.