Of the films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, there’s a strong undercurrent of patriotism among the favourites to win. Argo is about the rescue of US citizens from an Iranian hostage crisis. Zero Dark Thirty is about the quest for American justice against her enemies. Heck, if you want to stretch things, even Les Misérables has French Revolutionaries in it. And perhaps the most patriotic of all is Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg’s portrait of America’s 16th President. But while Lincoln is an excellent film, worthy of its accolades, it may prove too academic to win Oscar’s popularity contest.
It’s January 1865, and a weary Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is just beginning his second term as President of a fractured United States, the Civil War having claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. His major plan is to pass into law the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, despite heavy opposition in the House of Representatives. But when word comes that the Confederacy is willing to negotiate surrender, Lincoln is suddenly faced with a massive decision. Ending the war would bring the South back into the Union, where they would promptly block the Amendment. But delaying peace until the Amendment is passed means countless more soldiers’ lives will be lost. Over the course of several weeks, Lincoln wrestles with his conscience, his cabinet, and his political system to do the right thing.
Lincoln is at its best when it defies our expectations. History has given us a certain image of The Great Emancipator – staid, scholarly, and dignified. As such, it’s shocking to see Lincoln as Spielberg wants us to – huddling under blankets in the winter cold, shuffling around the White House in broken slippers, arguing passionately with wife Mary (Sally Field). Yet at the same time it all feels natural. Lincoln isn’t just an icon; he was a husband, and a father. His folksy storytelling sometimes annoyed people. He was a human being – of course we should see him this way.
Equally refreshing is screenwriter Tony Kushner’s depiction of the back-dealing to gather support for the Amendment. (Kushner adapts the story from Team of Rivals, a non-fiction account of these events by Doris Kearns Goodwin.) Here again, dry history lessons have led us to forget that, even in the 19th century, politics was a dirty business. As Lincoln’s cabinet strategizes, led by Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), a team of head-hunters makes the rounds on Capitol Hill, trading with Congressmen focused more on expediency than voting with their conscience. Fans of TV’s The West Wing will love this aspect of the film, even if the settings couldn’t be more different.
If fact, the one problem with Lincoln is that an interest in political drama is almost a pre-requisite. As marvelous as Day-Lewis is, inhabiting Lincoln as well as any other role he’s taken on, he can’t escape the script’s insistence that he talk in long, idealistic speeches, even to his closest advisers and family members. Also, as President, Lincoln never visits the House or the back rooms, so the heavy-lifting of the plot is done by the other characters. There are some brief looks at the horror of war, Spielberg-style, but most of the action comes through talking heads. If you’re into this stuff, it’s all fascinating, but it can get a little dry if you’re not.
Those other roles are performed by a uniformly excellent cast. Day-Lewis, Field and Tommy Lee Jones (as Republican ally Thaddeus Stevens) are well-deserving of their Oscar nominations. James Spader is amusing as a bombastic lobbyist. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt does his best with a weak subplot involving Lincoln’s son, Robert, yearning to join the War.
I doubt it will win Best Picture later this month, but Lincoln is a worthwhile exploration of a key moment in American history, and of the man at the heart of it.
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