Steven Spielberg’s dense, flawed, and ultimately extraordinary new movie “Lincoln” is a moving tribute to the democratic process, a grand and epic film about the grubby details of politics. No film in recent memory has depicted American politics with this level of intricacy, detail, and studious patriotism. Long known for his grand gestures and sweeping sentiments, Spielberg has here fashioned a work concerned instead with details, clauses, and compromises; the result, for the most part, is marvelous.
The film tells the story of the brief period in Abraham Lincoln’s presidency in which he attempts to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. The civil war has reached a climax of horrific violence and Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis, flawless as always) had just been reelected. Under enormous pressure to end the war, Lincoln instead focuses on passing a constitutional amendment that would permanently end slavery.
His decision incites harsh criticism. The democrats accuse him of abusing his executive power, labeling him a dictator and attempting to block his efforts at every turn. Even some inside Lincoln’s own party are uneasy with his decision, stating that it would be wiser to seek peace with the Confederate leaders. Lincoln weighs this option intently, but decides finally that it is only right to attempt to pass the constitutional amendment.
In order to do so, he needs to scrounge from a lame duck congress enough votes to ensure that the amendment passes the House of Representatives. Along with his Secretary of State William Seward (the excellent David Strathairn), Lincoln enlists the help of three raggedy hustlers (Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader) to convince a handful of democratic representatives to vote in favor of the amendment and retain support from his Republican base, led by the radical Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, more subtle and skillful than ever before).
In addition to the amendment, Lincoln has pressing personal issues with which he has to reckon. His tormented wife (Sally Field) is in a constant state of near hysteria; she is still grieving for the death of their son Willie three years prior, and is becoming increasingly indignant at her husband’s lack of attention to their marriage. Lincoln also has to grapple with the desire of his son Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt) to join the union army.
“Lincoln” spends a respectful amount of time and energy on these personal matters, but its true concern is with the efforts of Lincoln and his few republican allies to pass the 13th Amendment. One of the great virtues of “Lincoln” is its insistence on depicting the corrupt intricacies of the democratic process. Lincoln’s objective—the complete and everlasting abolition of slavery—is grand and noble, but the road he had to travel in order to achieve this objective is one of pragmatism, bribery, and barely disguised lying.
But Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner do not view these practical concerns and corrupt tactics as ignoble. On the contrary, “Lincoln” invites the viewer to marvel at the democratic process not in spite of its convoluted nature but because of this messiness. Using extraordinary grace and piercing clarity, the film makes the wheeling and dealing of the American political process seem honorable again.
Spielberg is a director known for his painterly visual flourishes. “Lincoln” is not entirely lacking in these—near the end of the film especially Spielberg indulges in a few wondrous flights of cinematographic poetry—but it is the most verbally dominated film of Spielberg’s career and thus requires more visual subtlety than the director’s previous work. To this effect, the film’s visual style is elegant, precise, and superbly understated; Spielberg has succeeded in making the story cinematically exciting without upstaging the words being spoken onscreen.
And the words, in this case, are enough. Hundreds of them pointedly whiz and zip across hallowed halls and storied rooms in scene after scene. Kushner audaciously challenges the audience to keep up with the manic intelligence of his characters, and in doing so gives the movie a pithy, entertaining pace that sustains and enhances the story.
The screenplay’s thematic core lies in Kushner’s faith in the nobility of democracy. He sees in the system a virtue that manifests itself not in grandiose acts but instead in compromise, sacrifice, and negotiation. Democracy as seen here is not elegant or pretty, but the gritty persistence and resourcefulness it breeds has a beauty all its own.
This is a wonderful concept, and the film illustrates it with great sincerity and technical savvy. Yet the movie is not without problems, the most troubling of which stems from Kushner and Spielberg’s unwillingness to expand their film’s intellectual horizons. While the dialogue and filmmaking in “Lincoln” is consistently sharp and occasionally revelatory, the film often feels more densely populated with words and gestures than ideas. “Lincoln” is long and crowded, but it is not as intellectually rich as it could be.
But in spite of this fault, the movie nevertheless is bold, alive, and wholly relevant to the current world. Part of the reason this unflinchingly traditional period piece feels so modern is that it also serves as a commentary on today’s frayed political landscape. “Lincoln” is at least partially a reminder that democracy at its best has never resembled the bipartisan heaven that some (our current president included) have dreamed of it becoming.
Instead, “Lincoln” argues that democracy is a messy clash of principles and strategies that (hopefully) results in the accomplishment of something worthy. To do business in a democracy does not rely on abandoning one’s principles, but instead on reconciling them with the realities of the system. What good is a moral compass in politics, Lincoln questions midway through the film, if its stringency results in us sinking into inaction? The insistence “Lincoln” makes that democracy functions only when politicians enforce their principles via practical and realistic thinking could hardly be more topical and timely.
And yet the film’s observations on democracy and its discontents are also timeless. The centerpieces of “Lincoln” are its extended sequences of political debate, with passionate politicians disputing restlessly topics such as race, justice, morality, and the future of America. And while Lincoln and his allies sometimes have to wheedle and connive to achieve their ends, they just as often are simply trying to convince their adversaries to do the right thing.
Such debates can be frustrating, tiresome, and irksomely unproductive. Yet they are the pillars upon which democracy is built, and “Lincoln” boldly argues for the necessity of these verbal spats. For there are times in this movie when something beautiful and dignified emerges from within the thick smog of political discourse. We can see them, at last, if just for one moment: the better angels of our nature, emerging once again.
Nicholas Judt, Age 15, Grade 10, The Dalton School, Silver Key