In a letter to the New York Review of Books defending against criticism of his historical novel Lincoln, Gore Vidal described the challenge of historical narrative. "All we have is a mass of more or less agreed-upon facts about the illustrious dead, and each generation tends to rearrange those facts according to what the times require." The tendency to make what Vidal called "a plaster saint" of Abraham Lincoln is the problem of most Lincoln biographies, and of Steven Spielberg's new film, Lincoln. Any portrayal of Lincoln must resemble the painted portraits we've seen, and any doubts about his unqualified devotion to racial equality must be swept aside.
Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals and written by Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright Tony Kushner, Spielberg's opus casts the expected amber glow on American history. It is chiefly a political drama, focusing on Lincoln's efforts in the closing months of the Civil War in 1864 to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. He had signed The Emancipation Proclamation, but it was a war powers action of limited force; Lincoln wanted to make abolition legally binding. The President had to use his considerable political skill to procure votes from reluctant Democratic congressmen to pass the amendment.
The script derives humor and drama from the backroom wheeling and dealing and the thundering speeches on the floor of the House or and against the amendment, whose passage could prevent a negotiated ending to the war. The cast is studded with recognizable faces: Hal Holbrook shows up as Francis Preston Blair, and Tommy Lee Jones hobbles about entertainingly in a black wig as crusty abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.
The war rages on, with devastating losses and characteristic Spielberg maudlinness, exacerbated by John Williams' derivative score. As the film opens, Lincoln visits Union soldiers, who reverently recite his Gettysburg Address. Later he walks solemnly across a battlefield of corpses and tries to dissuade his oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from joining the Union Army (Robert did anyway). The film is jolted from its classroom somnolence when Sally Field appears as the slightly mad but formidable Mary Todd Lincoln. Weary of Mary's endless grieving over the death of their son Willie, Abe finally erupts: "I should have clapped you in the madhouse when I had the chance!" The film could use more such fiery moments.
Daniel Day-Lewis works mightily to channel Lincoln but is so encased by makeup he resembles a Madame Tussaud's wax figure with twinkling eyes. Lewis' chief innovation is to speak with a reedy, high-pitched voice, approximating Lincoln's timbre as described by his contemporaries — accurate, perhaps, but it doesn't make this Lincoln any more real.
The vexed issue of race in 1860s America is simplified into a 19th-century version of The Help as Spielberg indulges his sentimental inclinations. One after another, African Americans, including members of the White House domestic staff, make grateful speeches to the President. His loyal valet gazes at him worshipfully as he departs for the theater on his fateful final night.
Lincoln's thoughts about race were more ambivalent than the film suggests. He was never an abolitionist, and said if he could preserve the Union only by maintaining slavery, he would do so. He also considered freeing the slaves and sending them to Liberia. He was a man of his times, a pragmatist keenly aware of the opposition of "the great mass of whites" to the idea of racial equality. He did, however, try to transcend those attitudes. Audiences should be trusted to accept the complexity of Lincoln who, despite his compromises, was a great man, if not the craggy saint of Spielberg's Lincoln.