Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Steven Spielberg, director
Tony Kushner, script based on Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Strathairn (Secretary of State William Seward), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Bob Lincoln), Gulliver McGrath (Tad Lincoln), Jackie Earle Haley (Confederate V-P Alexander Stephens), Bruce McGill (Secretary of War Edwin Stanton), Gloria Reuben (Elizabeth Keckley), James Spader (William Bilboe), John Hawkes (Col. Latham), Hal Holbrook (Francis Preston Blair), Jared Harris (Ulysses S. Grant)
A film about Abraham Lincoln directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner and starring Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t need festival launches or in-person media scrums. With a low budget by Spielberg standards of $60 million dollars, this character-driven Civil War epic is bound to draw worldwide attention.
Reverential biopic; political flick for those who love the process; historical epic
In January of 1865, President Lincoln is determined to have the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would abolish slavery, pass the House of Representatives before the current Congress is dismissed. The president is concerned that if Congress doesn’t ratify the proposed amendment before its closure, too much time will elapse and the Civil War will be over. Lincoln and his fellow Republicans realize that if the Southern states are admitted immediately back into the Union, the amendment will never pass.
Concentrating on Lincoln as a practical politician as well as a deeply moral storyteller, the narrative closely follows events as they actually unfolded that fateful January. Needing 2/3rds of the vote in the House (the Senate having already passed the amendment), Lincoln’s Republican forces understood that they would have to persuade some Democrats to take sides with them or risk losing the vote. Through devious means, some Democrats are bought off but eventually Lincoln has to enter the fray, engaging in rhetoric and arm-twisting in an attempt to persuade the final handful of potential swing voters to go with the Republicans.
Over that momentous month, Lincoln remains a leader, a politician, a charming speaker and a family man. The president’s relationship to his Cabinet, the so-called “team of rivals,” which included such able politicians as Secretary of State Seward (who oversaw the purchase of Alaska two years later) and Secretary of War Stanton (who would effectively run the nation in the power vacuum after the demise of Lincoln) is brilliantly delineated. His awkward alliance with the Radical Republican Representative Thaddeus Stephens, who abhors slavery, is well documented. So is his ability to tell funny but wise stories to politicians, friends and voters.
It’s Lincoln, the family man, who benefits the most from the film’s slowly evolving narrative. Viewers can see him in relationship to his oldest son Bob, who desperately wants to join the Army despite the president’s objections, to Tad, the youngest of the Lincoln boys, who worships his dad and to Mary, his nearly crazy and excessively emotional wife.
The film concludes with an old-fashioned tribute to The Great Emancipator.