Biographies and history books seldom convey how messy our lives really are as we live them or how messy our politics are in the morning papers. We learn in grade school that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Now Spielberg’s Lincoln brings us a movie portrait of just how uncertain, costly, and chaotic that effort was.
Lincoln spans the months between January and April 1865, as the president cajoled, sweet-talked, threatened, and offered political appointments to members of congress in order to pass the 13th amendment to the constitution which banned slavery forever. As a lawyer, Lincoln knew the Emancipation Proclamation, based on wartime powers he wasn’t even certain he possessed, could easily be struck down by the courts.
In tone, this is a post-heroic political movie that makes earlier visions, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, seem like hopeful adolescent illusions. Yet maybe there is even more to admire in someone portrayed as flesh and blood, who holds onto an ideal in the midst of political and personal chaos. We know the historical Lincoln agonized at the carnage of the last two years of the war and yet at the end, he allowed it to continue longer than necessary for the sake of an ideal that others considered madness.
Daniel Day Lewis is an actor of definitive roles. For me, he became the definitive Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans 1992, and the archetypal 19th century criminal in his role as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York 2002. Now he will be the Abraham Lincoln for this movie going generation. With a fine supporting cast that includes Sally Field, Hal Holbrook, and Tommy Lee Jones, this movie will appeal to anyone with an interest in American History and fine drama.