In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis: Nine) had just been elected to his second term. He enjoyed a wide popularity in spite of the Civil War, which slaughtered American citizens and deeply divided the country.
As Lincoln begins, it’s clear the Union will eventually win the war. But there is another problem on the horizon. As states are welcomed back to the fold, lawyers will challenge the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln knows the decree stands on shaky legal ground. The cure is passing the 13th Amendment — permanently declaring slaves free — before the Confederacy falls and slavery is reopened for debate.
The Democrats, a minority in the House, are vocally opposed to abolition. The Republicans are also bitterly divided on the issue. Conservatives so want the war to end that they’d be willing to table the issue of slavery. Radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones: Men in Black 3) want to punish the South with harsh reparations. They also want to ensure that slaves are viewed as legal equals, with the power to vote, intermarry with whites and live free lives. That’s too much for 19th century Americans, who may want to end slavery but don’t consider black people equal.
Will Lincoln pass the 13th Amendment in time? Who will win the war?
Most moviegoers know the answers to those questions.
That’s a problem.
Especially as director Steven Spielberg (War Horse) is so focused on capturing the iconic Lincoln that he neglects to make him a person. As you watch, count how many times Lincoln is shot from the side to better capitalize on that iconic profile.
Day-Lewis does a fine act as one of America’s most famous presidents, but he doesn’t give you a handle on what makes Lincoln tick.
Because Spielberg casts his lead in the blinding white light of justice, Lincoln becomes the least interesting character in his own movie. Spielberg even deprives him of his two most well known dramatic moments: You won’t see his death here, or his delivery of the Gettysburg Address. You won’t learn about his complicated marriage, the scores of dissenters who despised him or the decision process that led him to free the slaves only after war had broken out.
Lincoln lives up to its potential when the eponymous character is forced to deal with scallywags and scoundrels hired to help bribe the Democrats into voting for the 13th Amendment. We see how deeply he believes in equality and how easily he mixes with all types of people. But I wish the fascinating, dirty process of getting enough votes to pass the amendment had been given more screen time.
Lincoln is also a great film when it focuses on Thaddeus Stevens. A fussy blowhard, Stevens is the more interesting and dynamic character. Whenever Jones graces the screen, you feel his passion for equality and you understand why his bristly nature turned off more moderate politicians. In his short amount of screen time, Jones is able to construct a complex character with clear motivations and great principles.
While Lincoln gives only glimpses of insight into one of our greatest presidents, it is a fine introduction to Stevens, a figure largely lost to history.