Is that Abraham Lincoln? Why no, it's Daniel Day-Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln.
Is that Abraham Lincoln? Why no, it's Daniel Day-Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s commanding biopic about the 16th president, has been scheduled to open three days after the election—probably so that Spielberg, a deep-pocketed Obama backer, can’t be accused of trying to swing the election for the first African-American president. On the other hand, holding up the release may have been good for Obama. Covering the last three months of Lincoln’s life, the movie shows the president and fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives struggling to pass the Thirteenth Amendment over the vociferous opposition of Democrats. If Lincoln had come out earlier, Mitt Romney would probably have blamed Obama for slavery.

Even before Obama secured the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, he was singing the praises of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which served as the ostensible basis for Spielberg’s movie. Screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) has filled out the last two chapters of the Goodwin narrative with more research about the political horse-trading that enabled Lincoln to pass the amendment, and the result is unique among the major films about Lincoln, one that reveals not only his celebrated wit and wisdom but also his formidable skills as a politician. The man portrayed here possesses the gifts we should prize most in a president: he takes the long view of history but apprehends the present circumstance, and he has the iron will needed to reconcile the grimy business of governing with the highest ideals of the American experiment.

I would never have expected this lesson from Spielberg, a sentimental man who numbers the mythmaking John Ford among his cinematic heroes. Ford did more than any other filmmaker to enshrine Lincoln as a saintly rustic, most memorably in the classic Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), and Spielberg seems to follow his lead in the first dialogue scene of Lincoln. Visiting Union soldiers in the field, the commander in chief (Daniel Day-Lewis) squirms in modesty as two grunts recite the Gettysburg Address, and after they’re called away, a beaming black soldier proudly supplies the last few lines (“. . . that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”). As history the scene is defensible—Lincoln’s poetic, 272-word speech was widely printed in newspapers and immediately recognized as a rhetorical marvel—but as drama it’s atrocious, a smarmy Hall-of-Presidents moment.

Once Spielberg has gotten this out of his system, however, Lincoln quickly recovers. For all the brilliance of Kushner’s screenplay, the narrative masterstroke of stressing the amendment battle came from Spielberg. Interviewed recently on MSNBC, he explained that he wanted to show how Lincoln behaved during a “crisis”; of course Lincoln’s presidency was in crisis from the moment he took his hand off the Bible, but this was the ultimate political crisis. As the war ground on, there was enormous public pressure in the North to negotiate with the South, and any peace treaty would surely have preserved slavery. To end it once and for all, Lincoln needed a constitutional amendment enacted before the Confederacy surrendered and the Southern states rejoined the Congress. The bill had already cleared the Senate, but it would have to surmount fierce opposition in the House before it could be ratified by the Northern states. Lincoln would not be dissuaded, and the legislative battle reveals both his fine legal mind and his cunning as a politician.

The legality of Lincoln’s situation was complicated, a hard thing to explain onscreen, and Spielberg was wise to tap a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist as his screenwriter instead of some Hollywood hack. Kushner resorts to one of the oldest expository devices in movies—the “man with a pointer scene,” which refers to those old war movies in which an officer stands before a map, outlining the plan of attack—but the monologue in which Lincoln presents his dilemma to the cabinet is wonderfully lucid and compact. With the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Lincoln had unilaterally freed Southern slaves, arguing that, as commander in chief, he was entitled to seize them as the property of a hostile nation. Yet this extraconstitutional gambit was based on two intolerable suppositions—that slaves were property and that the Confederacy was a nation. As a legal argument against slavery, Lincoln admits, the proclamation was built on quicksand.

Lincoln came to the presidency as a former state legislator and U.S. congressman, so he understood the kind of wheeling and dealing required to get a bill enacted. If the Republican side held, he would need 20 Democrats on board to pass the amendment. As the president points out to his secretary of state, William Seward (David Strathairn), the recent election has turned 64 Democratic congressmen into lame ducks—men who’ll be out of work soon and might sell their vote for a government job. Some of the funniest scenes in Lincoln involve W.N. Bilbo, a slimy political operative from Albany who was summoned to Washington by Seward to grease the wheels for the amendment. In one scene, Bilbo (James Spader, having the time of his life) bumps into a Democratic congressman, knocking his portfolio out of his hands, and returns it to him stuffed with cash; in another, he approaches a congressman on the street and the man chases him off with pistol fire.

The Democrats were hardly Lincoln’s only problem—he also needed to keep his own party from fracturing on the abolition issue, and in the movie this becomes uncomfortably entwined with his conduct of the war. With hat in hand the president visits Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), a founder of the Republican Party, and implores him to help keep the conservative wing in line for the amendment. Blair was a loyal Lincoln man—one of his sons served as the president’s postmaster general, and another was a general in the Union Army—but in the movie he informs the president that a peace delegation is heading north to Washington. With a son in the army, Blair understands what will happen once the winter is over: “The roads will be passable. The spring slaughter commences.” To win Blair’s cooperation, Lincoln agrees to receive the delegation. When Seward learns of this, he goes ballistic: if word gets out that peace is at hand, support for the amendment will crumble.

Much like President Obama, Lincoln was considered a dangerous radical by the right and a sellout by the left. “Lincoln the capitulating compromiser!” fumes Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a vocal abolitionist and a withering orator on the floor. During a White House dinner, Lincoln takes Stevens aside and asks him to tone down his talk of redistributing Confederate wealth to freed slaves. Their conversation soon turns philosophical, laying bare the practical limits of representative democracy. When Lincoln protests that he’s constrained by the will of the people, Stevens replies, “Shit on the people! They elected me to represent them and to lead. You should try it.” Lincoln’s response encapsulates his attitude toward governing: a compass might point you toward your destination, but it won’t help much if a swamp intervenes.

This metaphor proves apt when Spielberg arrives at the big showdown in the House. If you’re repulsed by what you see in Washington today—the invective, the corruption, the divisiveness—you may find Lincoln weirdly familiar. The House of January 1865 is a snake pit riven by intractable political differences and seething personal spite (and remember, this is just the Northern states). First in the amendment debate, and then in the vote that follows, the two most principled characters in the movie are driven to outright lies: Stevens, agreeing at last to play the long game, denies that he believes all men are equal, arguing only that they should be treated equally before the law. And when news leaks that a peace delegation has arrived in Washington, Lincoln sends a note to be read on the floor, denying that he knows anything about it. As he admits to one of his secretaries, lying to Congress is an impeachable act, but he’s long since decided to end slavery by any means necessary.

Lincoln manages to encompass many aspects of the president’s last three months: his arguments with his unstable wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field); his determination to keep their eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), out of uniform; his grief over the recent death of their 11-year-old son, Willie, and the thousands of other sons taken by the war; his magnanimous friendships with the former political enemies who joined his cabinet; and of course his assassination (which Spielberg ingeniously represents with a scene from a children’s play). But making the amendment battle the spine of the story has allowed Spielberg to present Lincoln simultaneously as someone very simple and very complex. It reintroduces us to the man we all met in grade school—the one who freed the slaves. But it also reveals what he had to do to engineer such sweeping social change, affording us a more grown-up education.