Let’s face facts: you can probably find more Americans live Tweeting an Apatow movie than you can find ones who know what the thirteenth amendment is. And it’s almost certain that while many of us recognize the name Kardashian, few have ever heard of Thaddeus Stevens. Luckily, Daniel Day-Lewis and Stephen Spielberg are on a quest to educate and entertain in this most recent endeavor. Sure, it’s not an easy task to turn a historical House vote into an engaging 2.5 hour long movie, but given the right cast, director, and screen play, Lincoln delivers.
If you’re looking for a high intensity film, or lots of war-related violence, you’ll probably be disappointed. Spielberg pushes his sights away from the violence on the battlefield and instead puts us into Lincoln’s own struggles: with the South who are unwilling to give up their slaves, with the Democrats who refuse to recognize blacks as worthy of freedom, with a son who demands to fight for the Union, and with a wife who can’t handle any more loss as a result of the war. We’re given an interesting glimpse into the ways in which votes were sought and sometimes bought as well as the conflicted feelings of those who, though enlightened enough to understand the importance of the thirteenth amendment, were still afraid to support it publicly. We actually only see a total of maybe 3 war-related scenes total, and (slight spoiler) no deaths are shown on screen.
If Spielberg’s main goal was to simply educate his audiences about this important moment in American history, he did a great job. However, the lack of action makes the film drag on a bit, and while the story lines regarding Lincoln’s family members were present, we never really get to know the other Lincoln’s enough to sympathize with them. We can tell Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is looking for the approval of his father, and that he is troubled by not being involved in the war, but as we know little else about him, this subplot is almost distracting. And while characters like W. N. Bilbo (one of Lincoln’s operatives played by a sloppy James Spader) serve almost as comedic relief in an otherwise quiet film, you don’t really end up caring much about them either. And then there is Elizabeth Keckly (Mary Todd Lincoln’s confidant and a former slave who would later go on to become a civic activist), a silent presence throughout much of the film. One scene finds Keckly and Lincoln discussing the amendment, and it is here where Lincoln shows that he is not immune to the times. Upon wondering what the newly freed slaves would end up doing, he admits to Keckly that he doesn’t really know any “of you” (meaning African Americans), but that he expected he would “get used” to them. But although it’s really Daniel Day-Lewis who reels us in with his fantastic interpretation of President Lincoln, I’m almost more intrigued with Thaddeus Steven’s (Tommy Lee Jones) role in the film, which felt underdeveloped by the end of it all. There were simply too many characters, too much to say, and not enough time. Still, the film perseveres because in the end, the film is much more than the sum of its parts, or its subplots. Worth watching, but don’t expect a Saving Private Ryan meets There Will Be Blood or you’ll likely be disappointed.
On a side note, it’s sad to know that there is still the kind of racism from Lincoln’s time lingering in our society, some 150+ years later. This film comes at an important time in history, a time when we have our first African American president (approaching his second term!), a time that could not have come to pass had it not been for Lincoln’s actions and the perseverance of generations of politicians, activists, whites, blacks, and everyone in between.