Honest Abe Says: 4 Stars
Spielberg's talky recreation of the days leading to the passage of the 13th Amendment is a love letter to American history, faithfully dramatizing a watershed moment that reshaped the nation.
Perhaps no filmmaker has devoted himself to bringing history to the screen quite like Steven Spielberg. With LINCOLN, Spielberg has now made a remarkable fourteen period films. While not all fourteen have been fact-based, he's gone to great lengths time and again to recreate eras of yesteryear with each endeavor. On this latest project, production designer Rick Carter and costume designer Joanna Johnston lend an authenticity to the film that transports a viewer back to the waning days of the Civil War, when a vote on the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would abolish slavery, hangs in the balance of America's future.
The film looks great, from its limited Washington D.C. exteriors, to its battlefield carnage, to the White House and Capitol Building interiors, and its River Queen set. For a production that spared no expense ($65 million budget) on its rich historical visuals, one would expect it to get the content right as well.
What It Got Right:
Let's begin with the star of the show. Abraham Lincoln has seen the screen a handful of times, most memorably by Gregory Peck in 1982's THE BLUE AND THE GRAY. We've long imagined him with a deep and potent voice. Here, the intensely dedicated Daniel Day-Lewis apparently was more interested in the historical record. Pulling from regional dialects of the early 19th century (Illinois and Kentucky) in conjunction with contemporary reporting of Lincoln's "high pitched" and "shrill" voice, Day-Lewis creates a thoughtful man of sorrows. He's affectionate with his young son Tad. He's humorous, and a wonderful storyteller. Two of the stories he tells in particular - helping suspected old husband-killer Melissa Goings, his client, escape to Tennessee; and Ethan Allen's reaction to a painting of George Washington placed in an outhouse in England to get a rise out of him - are captivating in a comedic sense. The latter was one of Lincoln's favorite anecdotes.
Accurate is Lincoln's sometimes icy relationship with his oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), as is the companionship he shared with secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay, who were like sons to him.
He did in fact pay visits to wounded soldiers, and he appeared on the battlefields, both to soak in the damage and to meet with his men.
Lincoln was described as having an awkward and uncoordinated gait. A 2010 Yale-led study determined that he likely suffered from Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 5, a progressive central nervous system condition, which impairs one's ability to walk. Day-Lewis captures this physical characteristic, as each step he takes is more painstaking than the next.
Despite a very favorable portrayal, Lincoln was a politician, and not above political maneuvering, which we see on occasion. However, there is a sincerity in the character infrequently associated with politicians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. A tremendous sense of empathy pervades Day-Lewis throughout, and he carries it like a burden. The Marquis de Chambrun was impacted by Lincoln's deep sadness, which would give way to humor and uproarious laughter, he said, but always return. Lincoln's bodyguard, William Crook, noted this distress, attributing it to the horrors of the war. Lincoln would internalize the pain of those around him, even that of the Confederates, Crook recalled.
Though titled after the 16th president, the film purports that Representative Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and Secretary of State William Seward (David Straithairn) played just as big a role in the passing of the amendment as did Lincoln himself. The closeness we see between Lincoln and Seward, in juxtaposition with the coldness between Lincoln and Stevens, are both consistent with historical reporting. Though Seward vied for the presidency himself in 1860, he became Lincoln's close confidant during his administration. Stevens, on the other hand, a radical abolitionist, butted heads with Lincoln - his methods and political strategy. Wrote biographer Ralph Korngold of Stevens: "He thought Lincoln too tardy, too ready to temporize and compromise, too anxious to consult public sentiment. As yet, however, he was willing to restrain his impatience and cooperate energetically with Administration leaders." Both men were vehemently opposed to slavery, but Lincoln wanted little interference by the federal government. Stevens pushed for strong federal attacks against it. Though Stevens was entirely bitter toward Lincoln, a feeling that intensified in 1863 when Lincoln refused to expel Montgomery Blair from his cabinet upon Stevens's request, the president, on the other hand, "never cherished resentment" toward Stevens, said Republican Editor Alexander K. McClure. He appreciated Stevens as "one his most valued and useful co-workers." This is certainly the sentiment we observe on screen.
As the film suggests, Stevens did in fact carry on a long-term relationship with his housekeeper, a mulatto woman known as Mrs. Smith. They never married, though she was considered his common law wife.
One of the more entertaining, and delightfully goofy aspects of writer Tony Kushner's script is the influence of lobbyists W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), and Robert Latham (John Hawkes). These men were each dear friends of Seward's, who employed them to procure Democratic votes. The lobby did indeed play a critical role in the monumental victory. The amendment passed with just two votes to spare, a final tally of 119 for, 56 against, and 8 (all Democrats) absent.
We see various high jinks from the three lobbyists in the movie, even suggesting bribery may have taken place. Latham had in fact been accused of proffered bribery for changed votes prior to his work with Seward. Schell, known as the "life of his circle," was a quick-witted gambler and a Wall Street "insider." In a letter to Andrew Johnson, ringleader Bilbo indicated that bribery of some kind was used to persuade Democrats to vote for the Amendment or not show up for the vote on January 31.
Also true is the near postponing of the vote when it became known that Southern commissioners looking to talk peace terms were waiting at General Grant's headquarters. Congressman James Ashley of Ohio insisted that Lincoln's secretary check on the truth of the rumor. Hay returned with this reply from Lincoln: "So far as I know, there are no peace Commissioners in the city, or likely to be in it." This is depicted rather comically in the film. Lincoln was well aware that the Peace Commissioners were en route to Fort Monroe. He even wrote Seward an authorization that very day to meet with them on February 1. But since they were not technically in the Capital, he could honestly say they were not there. Ashley later said that were it not for Lincoln's clever phrasing, the amendment would have failed.
Mary Lincoln (Sally Field), in a comparatively limited role, anguishes over son Willie, who died three years earlier, in her most jarring scene. She would indeed suffer from depression every February on the anniversary of Willie's death, and it was in fact Mary who attempted to prohibit Robert Lincoln from joining the fight. He did, however, very late into the war, and he was present at Appomattox, as seen in the film.
What It Got Wrong:
Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, who was also a consultant on the movie, notes a few minor issues with the final product. Mary Lincoln never set foot in the House Gallery while the vote was tallied, Holzer says. He also mentions that congressmen did not vote by state delegations, as the film purports. Lincoln never had a lithographic portrait of William Henry Harrison in his presidential office, nor was it likely that Tad ever had glass negatives of slaves or soldiers.
Also improbable is the film's second scene, in which two soldiers recite the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln. The Address, Holzer says, did not reach any sort of national recognition until the twentieth century. Lincoln's face did not appear on any 50-cent piece of the day, as the lobbyists joke. Lastly, on his deathbed in the Peterson house, Lincoln was placed diagonally on the bed to accompany his long frame. He was also nude, as doctors had to remove his clothing to search for other wounds. Day-Lewis appears fully clothed and lying vertically.
But this is all just nitpicking. And there are other areas to do this. For instance, W.N. Bilbo and the lobbyists had begun their work for Seward procuring votes as early as November of 1864. In the film, Seward doesn't contact them until the second week of January.
There are also characters vital, or at least significant of the times, who are absent. One figure was Democrat Samuel S. Cox, who argued in the House on January 12, 1865, that the Amendment was "unquestionably constitutional." Cox visited with party friends to persuade them that the Amendment was necessary for the "upbringing of the party." Three years later Seward praised Cox in a public speech saying that he "more than any other member, is due the passage of the Constitutional Amendment in Congress abolishing African slavery." Ironically enough, Cox voted against the Amendment on January 31.
Frederick Douglass also evaded the film. Though not a major player in the vote, he was invaluable to Lincoln. In her book, "Team of Rivals," on which the film was in a very small part based, Doris Kearns Goodwin provides an excerpt from the celebratory scene in the White House following Lincoln's second inaugural speech. Lincoln specifically sought out the apprehensive Douglass to ask what he thought of the speech. Douglass was embarrassed to take the president's time in such a massive crowd. But Lincoln called Douglass a friend, before declaring, "You must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours." For such an emphasis on the freedom of African Americans, the film does not give them much of a voice.
There was also the matter of the "four hundred millions of dollars" that Lincoln proposed Congress empower him with in order to compensate the Southern states for their freed slaves. Lincoln was saddened that no one in his cabinet stood behind him on the proposal. And an outrageous suggestion like this in the film may have been damaging to the political genius that Spielberg puts on display.
Near the movie's end, Spielberg portrays the scene at Appomattox, where General Lee rides in, offers some body language to General Grant, while officers look on, and then backs away before riding off. The whole exchange is silent. History tells a different story. Grant and Lee talked terms of surrender. Lee even told Grant that his army was starving and in very bad condition, to which Grant promised to send rations for 25,000 men. This is hardly the tense encounter the film depicts.
These are all forgivable dramatic hiccups, or omissions for the sake of time, in an otherwise impressive feat of an historical motion picture.
LINCOLN is just a small chapter in the life of one of our nation's greatest men, albeit, his final chapter. Spielberg, Kushner, and the rest of the production wanted to make one thing clear about Lincoln in this story of he and his cabinet: his morals surpassed his politics, or rather, they were his politics. And LINCOLN is a tale of morals within the political spectrum, not a biopic. Perhaps General William T. Sherman best captured the spirit of this film as he reflected on Lincoln some years after the president's death in an all encompassing summation: "Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other."