It isn't the first time this year our 16th president has received the cinematic treatment. Back in June, Lincoln was given the great honor of being portrayed as a slayer of the bloodsucking undead – although all those involved in the creation of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter were sadly not up to competently executing such an honorable task.
But that was summer blockbuster season, and now that we are just past the halfway mark of November, we are firmly into the first stages of Oscar season. Enter Steven Spielberg, American filmmaker extraordinaire, whose previous effort, War Horse, was pure, laughable Academy Award schlock – so cheesy you could put it on a pizza. A cursory viewing of the trailer for our current subject, the film Lincoln, should cause any conscientious film-lover to feel concern that the director who brought us such classics as Jaws and Indiana Jones might be careening dangerously down the same path he began last year. Featuring an “inspirational” score by John Williams, sweeping cinematography, and an epic performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, the trailer screams “Oscar-bait” - so much so that this reviewer has regularly referred to it as “looking like a parody of itself.”
Luckily, the film succeeds in spite of itself, resulting in an interesting – and informative – two-and-a-half hour trip to the theater. I'm not inclined to give Spielberg himself much credit as the true force behind the film, cliché as it may sound, is Mr. Day-Lewis, who has proven time and again that he is going to give a stirring performance, no matter who is at the helm. He can take care of himself. He portrays Abraham Lincoln with a quiet confidence, endowing the president with an outwardly calm assurance that he will achieve his primary goal – passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which would abolish slavery, along with ending the drawn-out Civil War – while brilliantly portraying, often subtly, though at times appropriately violently, the pain and frustration of the seemingly impossible task.
Of course, due credit must be given to the man behind the dialogue that Day-Lewis brings so effectively to life. Tony Kushner (acclaimed for his play “Angels in America” and the truly astounding miniseries of the same name which he adapted for HBO) based the screenplay “in part” on the biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, authored by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is a large tome, but Kushner's script focuses specifically on the last four months of Lincoln's life, from January until April of 1865.
One of the most striking things about the film, explored deftly by Kushner's writing, is the political maneuvering which was necessary for Lincoln to pass the 13th Amendment. By all accounts, Lincoln did the right thing – these days the idea of slavery is completely unthinkable, as any person with an ounce of intelligence understands that a person's race does not make them greater or lesser than another. A viewer of the film sees the trickery and finagling achieved by Lincoln as crafty and clever and, by all means, necessary. As it was. However, an objective viewing of these things causes one to wonder how such shenanigans would go over in today's political climate. Half-truths, loopholes, and clever wording do not a trustworthy politician make. Of course, we have the undeniable fact that, for Lincoln, the ends justified the means – and no one is disputing this. But it is a theme which easily – and necessarily – lends itself to in-depth discussion.