Steven Spielberg is in full Amistad mode in Lincoln, and if nothing else, it’s nice to have his take on history once again unhoofed from a magical pony. It’s been a few years since ’97, so you may have forgotten how much the Speelzman enjoys him some semi-arcane historical political maneuvering as it relates to the legality of slavery. But boy does he! It fascinates him! For Spielberg, this is actually a good thing. On the rare occasion that Spielberg actually gets criticized these days, it’s usually on account of being a gooey hokey schmaltzy cheeseball. Nothing wrong with that, not everyone’s going to make films as subtle as Sofia Coppola, and thank God, but the biggest problem with cheesy hokum is that it can feel impersonal, like a director’s just telling the audience what they want to hear. And that becomes too broad, lacks personality, starts to feel like it was aimed at a composite of a person instead of a person, glossing over those little details and idiosyncrasies that give people, and movies, their individual charm. The best (and most surprising) thing about Lincoln is that it lets Spielberg indulge his more esoteric side, and it makes you remember that, oh right! This Steven Spielberg, he’s an actual person, and not just a series of focus-tested camera tricks, a chimera built of horse magic, child-like wonder and John Williams scores.
Rather than a broad biopic, Lincoln focuses on the final days of the Civil War, when Abe was trying to force the 13th amendment through a constipated House. Now, here’s where it gets complicated. Lincoln had already sort of freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation. The problem with that – as Daniel Day-Lincoln explains during a meeting of his advisors – is that the emancipation was a war powers act, resting on the legal assumption that the president has the right to seize property from enemy nations. That assumption was in turn problematic because for one, it de facto legitimized the notion that slaves were property, and for another, it supported the Confederacy’s disputed notion that the Confederacy was a sovereign nation. Not to mention that the emancipation didn’t apply to the border states or territory already reclaimed by the Union, and once the South was part of the Union again, as everyone hoped it would be, the emancipation did nothing to outlaw slavery there. The emancipation was mostly a big F-you to the South that only freed about 50,000 of the country’s four million slaves. Furthermore, many border staters’ and northerners’ only interest in outlawing slavery was as a way to crush the South’s will† and end the war. If Lincoln didn’t get slavery outlawed before the end of the war, he worried that it’d never be resolved. With the 13th Amendment already through the Senate, Lincoln is the story of Abraham Lincoln horse-trading and cajoling the House to pass an amendment it had already rejected less than a year earlier.
It sounds arcane in theory, but in practice mostly involves foppish Southern Lawyers in wigs hurling old-timey insults at one another while their pals gather round, pounding their desks and straightening their waistcoats (read: awesome). No one does crotchety curmudgeonarian like Tommy Lee Jones, and Jones as be-wigged pro-equality congressman Thaddeus Stevens calling Lee Pace’s preening Copperhead a “nincompoop” and a “slime mold” on the floor of the House is endlessly watchable. I’d pay Tommy Lee Jones ten dollars to dress me down in front of my friends. Likewise, James Spader plays a weaselly roustabout with a twirly magician ‘stache whose job is to bribe lame-duck congressman with money and patronage in exchange for their yes vote on the amendment, a highly-watchable process that involves preening, mustaches, waistcoats, and the occasional pocket watch.
Daniel Day-Lewis, meanwhile, plays Lincoln like a Civil War-era Good Will Hunting, a kindly old bullsh*tter always ready with the perfect joke or windy anecdote, who’s always too cool for the room and speaks almost entirely in parable. Day-Lewis’s portrayal, and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s depiction of Lincoln is probably 85 percent bullsh*t, but it’s the best kind of Hollywood bullsh*t, crowd-pleasing mythmaking.
But Spielberg being Spielberg, he can’t resist going back to the family-drama well, and every time he does Lincoln grinds to a fart. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Abe’s son Robert, who doesn’t need to be in the movie at all, and serves only as a rallying point for the same old “SON, AH DON’T WANT YOU TO FAHGHT IN THE WAR!” “BUT, PA! AH GOTS TO DO THIS! NONE A MAH FRIENDS IS GONE RESPECT ME NA MOAR!”
What? Who gives a shit? You told us the war was practically over like five minutes ago.
Poor Sally Field gets saddled with the same old hysterical mom role, “NO, SON, DON’T FAHGHT IN THE WAR!” – the period-piece equivalent of “women be shoppin’.” With the exception of one pleasantly catty scene between her and Tommy Lee Jones, every time she was on screen I wanted to cut my eyes out and feed them to a horse.
Aside from being boring and hokey and irrelevant, the family drama distracts from much more interesting questions left unasked. For instance, is Lincoln trying to resolve the slavery question because he actually likes black people or just to avoid another war? Was it possible for him to abhor slavery but still consider blacks inferior, like the overwhelming majority of white Europeans in the Colonial period? Would we still be able to worship this guy as a hero of equality even if he was still kinda racist? The only thing we get by way of an answer is Lincoln’s obtuse conversation with his maid, in which Lincoln basically tells her he doesn’t know if he likes black people because he doesn’t know any. It gave me a great sketch idea for Overly Honest Abe, (“don’t go in that water closet, gents, I just shelled it like Fort Sumter!”) but it seemed like a bit of a cop out for one of the central questions surrounding Lincoln’s legacy.
The only character who’s an avowed believer in true equality is Thaddeus Stevens, and without spoiling anything, the film waits until the very end to reveal a fact about Stevens’ personal life, which, while true, because it’s structured like a bombshell, kind of feels like an attempt to explain Stevens’ feelings. Which is pretty sh*tty when you think about it. If you’re not going to pop-psychologize any of the racists, why so reductive with the one non-racist?
Lincoln hints at a more personal, more interesting Spielberg, but the family-drama digressions make it feel a little dull and overlong.
†Sorry to be captain footnote here, but I thought this aspect could have used further clarification, since I still don’t quite understand it. How would outlawing slavery make the South less apt to fight? “Demoralizing” them seems a bit wishy-washy, especially since the North already supposedly freed the slaves there by decree. If anything, wouldn’t outlawing it in a more express way give the South more incentive to try to remain a separate nation, more incentive to keep fighting? The assumption that people were more likely to be in favor of the 13th Amendment before the end of the way is the crux on which this entire plot rests, and I still don’t quite understand it. If any Civil War historians are reading this, feel free to weigh in.