Stephen Spielberg’s new movie “Lincoln” contains a couple of surprises, which is something of a surprise in itself. Regular moviegoers may feel as if they have got the director’s routine figured out pretty well. After all, we’ve seen over two dozen of his movies, including some big hits and some pretty dull stuff.
Probably “Lincoln” will eventually be recognized as both a money- and a nap-maker. It is a fairly earnest movie that runs almost three hours, previews included. Oddly, one doesn’t sense that Spielberg has the size of cast or the range of settings he used to command. But the movie is big enough, and may be too big in some ways.
Among the surprises are that the movie is not really about the craggy railsplitter. Instead it is about the effort to pass the thirteenth amendment, ending slavery, through the lame duck House of Representatives after the 1864 elections. The first Republican president was certainly active in trying to secure votes that would in some ways formalize what he had done with the Emancipation Proclamation. But perhaps most of the scenes in which he appears are actually unrelated to the big legislative push.
As Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis is, as always, terrific. I found myself aware that the son of a British Poet Laureate was doing a dandy job playing a radical, rural Illinois lawyer. Most of the film’s humor arises from Lincoln’s stories, which Lewis tells in what must be a pretty good imitation of the Great Emancipator’s high voice. I suppose to be even more authentic, Lewis could have been even more nasal. Lincoln’s speaking voice was not an attractive one.
But his anecdotes—some of them historical—were pretty good and not at all goody-goody. Why was it fitting that George Washington’s portrait should hang in an English duke’s privy? Because nothing makes an Englishman evacuate faster than the sight of George Washington. That’s an example of one of Lincoln’s tales.
We’ve gotten into the habit of treating Lincoln as a second Jesus, perfect, gentle, and martyred. As has been the case with a lot of Hollywood movies the last few years, “Lincoln” goes a little ways toward “debunking the myths,” which to some will mean “smearing the hero.” This movie comes very close to suggesting that the president was willing to continue the war, despite an offer of peace, in order to get the amendment passed first.
The logic here may be difficult or even impossible to accept. The South might have been less willing to capitulate if in doing so they had to accept Negro emancipation. But in the film’s scenario, the Confederates were already offering peace terms. Less radical Republicans in the House would not vote for the amendment if they knew of the offer.
Here’s some of the film’s icon bashing: Lincoln hid the offer from the Congress. But still the logic of the voting isn’t clear. Was the president sure the CSA would accept peace once the amendment had passed? Wouldn’t the less-ideological Republicans have voted for the amendment once peace was secured? Who thought the amendment would make peace more likely?
A movie as talky as this one—and believe me, there is almost no action in the film at all—should have done a better job of establishing the circumstances of its central drama.
The legislative whipping and vote-buying is surprisingly amusing, mostly because of the exertions of the administration’s negotiators, played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader. That the middle-aged Spader has a turn this good—that’s the film’s second big surprise.
“Lincoln” needs Spader and Lewis to be terrific. Otherwise it is just an especially chatty Spielberg movie. And we all can imagine what that would be like.