Review by Pete Mason
If you are looking for a bio of Abraham Lincoln and his life story, you’ll have to wait. This is a film of how the 38th lame duck Congress worked to pass the 13th Amendment, pushed through by Lincoln in advance of the foreseeable end of the Civil War, showing how government works, how it should work and how it once worked. Ending the historical blemish of slavery was viewed by Lincoln as an historical imperative, one that was come upon by the founders some 90 years prior with the American Revolution and Declaration of Independence. Like the founders, Lincoln is a man and not a mythic legend or one who was greater than those around him. Instead, all these men: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Franklin and others, they were not demi-gods but human beings who, in acting in the best interests of their country and its future, would be revered later in history. Yes, they did great things, but all – Lincoln included – were flawed, ordinary men, just as we all are today. Lincoln struggles with his conscience and conflict from others to form his super-majority to get the amendment out of the House of Representatives and off to the states, where the amendment was assured passage by the necessary 3/4 margin.
Throughout the film, Lincoln gives great speeches and appears as a ghost at times, a specter when not in consultation with others. Lincoln is a ghost when walking the halls or alone in thought, his words still burning today. This is another fine acting job by Daniel Day Lewis and an Oscar nomination, if not third win is assured. He speaks in a soft, slightly nasal tone, one different than the Lincoln I was previously familiar with, from “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Lewis’ tall stature makes him the focus of any scene, whether seated or rising to impose his being on those around him. At 6’4″ and appearing taller with his speech-lined hat, Lincoln is the main player of the film but not its focus, for the passage of the amendment itself is the true focus.
The supporting historical cast includes Secretary of State (and Union College alumnus) William Seward, played by David Strathairn with incredible resemblance http://www.flickr.com/photos/somewhereinak/1985400068/ and acumen. Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, gives a stellar performance as a reserved but vocal conservative supporter of the 13th, revealing his true intentions and pulling back the curtain on himself only after the amendment (spoiler alert) passes. Also notable are Hal Holbrook as consensus builder Preston Blair and Lee Pace as amendment opponent Fernando Wood. Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, however, plays crazy well, but her scenes detract from the story and only seem to serve to humanize Lincoln and show the two sides of his life – building consensus at work and lacking that consensus building within his family.
Steven Spielberg’s directing is the true highlight of the film, more so than the acting. Using incredible lighting, he utilizes shadow and light to show the two sides of the argument for and against slavery, the moral dilemma some men went through and what beliefs, both light and dark, were the key to passage of the amendment. The immense cast draws you back to the time period and gives a sense of the size of the chamber comprised solely of representatives from the Union states, packed into a small room, vigorously supporting one side or another.
This film has little action found in Civil War era films, with only a few minutes at the start where we see a battle unfold and at the end, the aftermath of the Siege of Petersburg. In between, the action is within Lincoln’s cabinet and among his advisers, as well as the House of Representatives (the Senate had already passed it in this legislative period, which was due to end in March of 1865). Embracing those who disagreed with Lincoln so that he might hear the arguments against as well as for, his team sets out to get the needed votes for 2/3 passage. This is the majority of the film: debate, lobbying for votes and twisting of arms on both sides. James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, John Hawkes as Robert Latham and Tim Blake Nelson as Richard Schell do the dirty work for Lincoln, offering patronage positions and getting the initial votes without Lincoln needing to step in until the 11th hour.
If anything is to be taken out of the film it is this: THIS IS HOW CONGRESS IS SUPPOSED TO WORK. We do not see vigorous debate like this today, except on the rarest of occasions; rather, our House floor is empty, and debate and discussion is behind closed doors and in the media. The majority of the film shows the steps taken to get Democratic votes and retain Republican votes by seeking out any possible angle to get to the needed votes. If you are a history buff and enjoy watching CSPAN, then this is your governmental porn.
Rated PG-13 for a little violence and language, but this is a film for the ages and for all ages, especially those in junior and senior high school, who can get a true look at how government is supposed to work.