Lincoln” naysayers on the film’s release in the United States mainly commented on two things: the historical error committed by Steven Spielberg when in a climactic scene the director showed a Connecticut congressman voting against the abolition of slavery; and that everyone’s teeth, including those of the slaves, were splendidly white. I consider it my solemn duty to declare this is no biggie.
Complete and relentless accuracy would not have served “Lincoln” in the least — I mean, do we really want to sit through two and a half hours of watching dental-plan-lacking 19th-century Americans baring molars? Besides, there’s plenty of realism in “Lincoln” to spare — with corpses piled up as high as the tall President Abraham Lincoln when he inspects the carnage on a battlefield. Real enough for you?
“Lincoln” is absorbing, wrenching and whip-smart as it follows the quest of the 16th American president instilling the 13th Amendment to end slavery, amid a bloody internal strife that threatened to cripple the nation forever. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his engrossing and almost maniacal performance in the title role, and the picture shows Spielberg in complete command of his particular subgenre that can best be described as History Via Spielberg (along with “Schindler’s List,” “Amistad” and “Saving Private Ryan”).
Here, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (working from a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin) portray how the Emancipation Proclamation was as much about depleting the financial resources of the Confederate states as it was about freeing African-American slaves — or perhaps even more so. To end the American Civil War (which was hellishly expensive and damaging), Lincoln needs to unify Congress — but to unify Congress, he needs to get that amendment ratified before the government can officially call it quits.
The cast is resplendent. Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln, who combines an understated shrewishness with genuine concern for her husband and the future of the nation. Mary is also a mother in mourning; she’s lost her eldest son to the war, and her younger son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), also on the battlefield, staunchly refuses special treatment. Lincoln, on the other hand, shows signs of snapping under the weight of war, the emancipation and the ever-feuding Congress. Tommy Lee Jones — Hollywood’s go-to-actor for deep creased lines and granite conviction — is powerhouse abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.
Having worked his way up from being a farm boy, Lincoln was a self-taught, self-made politician with an ingrained mistrust of privilege and unearned wealth. His stoicism was a big part of what propelled the Union Army to victory. At the same time, his tall, stooping figure was emblematic of the hardships and pain suffered by the Confederacy. As Lincoln inches his way toward closure here, the entire film begins to feel like a prayer. We know the outcome of the historical events, but nearly 150 years later, the repercussions aren’t over. After “Lincoln” opened in the U.S., Mississippi became the 50th and final state to instill the 13th amendment. Better late than never, right?