By Joan Ellis
Rarely has a slice of American history been delivered with such panache. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, Lincoln is driven by the determination of the filmmakers to capture the flavor of an angry era.
This movie unfolds in the chaos between the Gettysburg Address and the end of the Civil War when Lincoln focused on passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.
The credibility of the whole film depends on Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln, and it is indeed an uncanny thing to watch. Though Matthew Brady photographed him repeatedly, we have no visual record of Lincoln’s voice or his motion. Our imagining then, comes from his contemporaries who describe his “thin, reedy” voice and awkward carriage. Day-Lewis incorporates these characteristics in his Lincoln with great subtlety until we stare in amazement, especially when he is silhouette. I smile at the thought that if Lincoln were to return today, he might easily be compared unfavorably to the Day-Lewis portrait. This will be the enduring Lincoln.
The film unrolls in and around the furious debate taking place in the House of Representatives. Southerners, knowing their economy would collapse if slavery were outlawed, rallied against the amendment. Besieged by angry Southern lobbyists, Lincoln and his ally, Thaddeus Stevens, plotted its passage.
Stevens, limited by a permanent limp and bald from an early disease, was bitter and often cruel – an unpopular man with a steel belief in abolition. Tommy Lee Jones brings Stevens to vivid life in all his contradictions. After a Southerner has charged, “Your Union, Sir, is bonded in canon fire and death,” Stevens demands passage of the 13th. Pounding the desk, he rages, “This amendment is that cure!”
The filmmakers have succeeded beautifully in creating the players in this crucial historic debate. The unintended benefit here is the likeness of their polarization to our present fractious politics. While the Southern argument is presented fairly, the perspective of time has put them on the wrong side of the historical wave. Their economy did collapse, and a question hangs over the film: Has the South ever reinvented itself after change that was both inevitable and right?
After signaling his intentions in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln watched the amendment sink into prolonged acrimony in the House. To ensure passage, he jumped into the nasty political waters with all the tools at his command. He cajoled, persuaded, threatened, and bribed. He became a consummate, if reluctant, politician, but he was alone all the while in the awful concern that passage could postpone the end of the war.
Tony Kushner’s complex script makes the movie an absorbing and exciting piece of history. The actors, including Hal Holbrook, James Spader, and David Strathairn take it on with relish. Sally Field plays Mary Lincoln as we think of her – on the edge. With expert support on every level, Daniel Day-Lewis gives us the heroic whole of Abraham Lincoln.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.