These days, it’s rare to see a movie that accurately depicts history. It is rarer still to find one that is quite excellent. Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln is thus quite a precious gem of a movie, one that fully succeeds in making you believe you are in Washington D.C. in 1865 and which is filled to the brim with memorable characters, each of whom deserves a movie of their own.
What’s that? You thought this was just a great movie about Abraham Lincoln? Why, it certainly is, and Daniel Day Lewis does such a great job of channeling Lincoln that he seems like a man wholly possessed by his spirit. From the crooked nose to his poor grooming to his unnaturally high voice, he has Lincoln nailed. No actor has done a better job pretending to be Lincoln and likely none ever will. And while Lincoln is certainly at the nexus of this story of the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which made slavery unconstitutional), he does not own the movie. Rather, he complements the movie as a whole cast of memorable and now largely forgotten cabinet officials and legislators provide equally impressionable performances in this often-riveting two and a half hour movie. Such exquisite care was made to render a historically accurate and plausible movie that you truly feel in the 19th century.
Ironically, Richmond Virginia substitutes for Washington D.C. This is ironic if you know your Civil War history, because Richmond, two hours south by car from Washington was the capital of the Confederate States of America. Since I have a daughter at university in downtown Richmond, I can attest that much of it looks like was around in the 19th century. There are many blocks of aged and rather ugly row houses. They made for a ready substitute for a 19th century version of Washington, D.C., courtesy in part by the taxpayers of Virginia, which helped subsidize the film. This makes the film more ironic, since there is a large Confederacy museum within blocks of where the movie was filmed in Richmond, and there are plenty of Virginians who still wish the state was part of the Confederacy. So in a way I had to see the movie just to ensure that my investment as a taxpayer got sufficient return.
The movie begins more than three years into the Civil War, as its outcome was becoming increasingly clear. While Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, it did not free all of them, only those who lived in slave states, and was no guarantee that slave states would not bring in more slaves. Anticipating the readmittance of the Southern states, he knew the Civil War might be in vain if slavery were not first forbidden by constitutional amendment. However, getting there was hard. Constitutional amendments require two-thirds approval by both houses of Congress, and Democrats in Congress were hanging tough.
Do not expect a movie about the Civil War, but rather a movie that concentrates on Lincoln’s Herculean task of trying to round up the votes to pass the amendment in the House of Representatives. In the 19th century, the House of Representatives is a wild and raucous place, where fistfights could easily break out and decorum was even worse than it was today. The movie shows representative government in all its ugliness and frankly this kind of government is hugely entertaining, sort of like watching Storage Wars. If legislating were this interesting, C-SPAN might be the most watched cable channel. Lincoln had a boost, having won reelection. His coattails include more Republicans in Congress as well. Still, passage of the 13th Amendment seemed a long shot at best, given the implacable opposition by Democrats who simply could not see blacks as equals.
The result is Washington that is depicted as a chaotic menagerie of 30,000 people or so, the actual size of the city back then. There is Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s wife played by the excellent actress Sally Field, obviously in need of therapy and antidepressants that did not exist, and driving poor Honest Abe nearly nuts with her tantrums, crying spells, sniping and moodiness. There is his Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn), trying to delicately negotiate an end to the war through third parties. There is the eloquent Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the nexus of Republican power in the House trying to corral his party and coax mostly hostile Democrats to support passage of the amendment. There are many, many others who even with their limited screen time are the fully fleshed out characters they should be.
Lincoln is all this plus it has an eye for authenticity to the time that is flawless. The White House is depicted as it was: a largely dark place where kerosene lamps and fireplaces provided limited light and enhance the feelings of brooding. The desks are piled with books and papers, and the walls are hung with War Department maps. There is the dark paneled telegraph office across the street from the White House where Lincoln often hung out, awaiting the latest news from the battlefield. The heart of this movie though feels not in the White House, but in the House of Representatives where an ineffectual speaker tries to control his zoo of passionate, partisan and crass legislators. If for some reason you tuned out civics in school, see it in all its ignoble glory in Lincoln. You might come away with the notion that democracy is actually quite interesting.
The result is a gloriously realized and fascinating look at perilous times for our nation one hundred and fifty years ago. It’s a movie so well done that I feel it demands not a sequel (since Lincoln is assassinated) but prequels, so we can learn so much more about these people and their times.
Stephen Spielberg has produced a masterpiece, and considering his illustrious career that includes other movies like Schindler’s List and The Color Purple, that says a lot. It will be criminal if Lincoln does not win Best Picture this year. While Daniel Day Lewis certainly deserves best actor, you would have a hard time choosing the best supporting actor as there are so many candidates in this movie worthy of that award.
Thanks Stephen. This Civil War buff cannot begin to express the depth of his gratitude for this lovingly rendered masterpiece. 3.5 out of four stars.