The saying goes that those who love laws, like those who love sausages, had best not look too closely at how they are made. But Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln pays no heed to the old saw, devoting the bulk of its brisk two-and-a-half hours to the machinations behind the passage of the constitutional amendment outlawing slavery. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Great Emancipator is not a stentorian orator but a sly, self-amusing raconteur, an expert horse trader who doles out patronage jobs in exchange for congressional yeas: in short, a politician.
Opening with a black soldier (David Oyelowo) reciting the Gettysburg Address, the movie weaves sometimes unsteadily between myth and man. The scenes between Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), feel canned and impersonal, as if the filmmakers never quite solved the problem of who Lincoln was when no one was watching.
Kushner’s characterization is drawn in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, but owes as much to the Oval Office’s current occupant, another Illinois lawyer who has pursued grand aims and settled for incomplete victories. The role of disillusioned liberal goes to Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens, who believes that the end of slavery should be accompanied by black suffrage. Forced to mollify his party’s ideological purists while dragging dissenters across the aisle, — and doing so as the Civil War threatens to end, robbing the proposed amendment of its urgency — Lincoln employs every means at his disposal, including some that tarnish his copper-bright image. Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus rates only fleeting mention, unintelligible to the unfamiliar, but he does engage in some lawyerly word-splitting — an uncharitable observer might call it “lying” — to hide the fact that a Confederate delegation is already heading north to negotiate the South’s surrender.
As always, Spielberg has a tendency to underline twice when once would do, but Day-Lewis runs with the movie’s pedantic bent, enhancing one argument with a Euclidean theorem. The painstaking detail that goes into tracking the amendment’s path toward approval is at its core an impassioned defense of representative democracy, with all its flaws intact. It’s like the most eloquent episode of Schoolhouse Rock ever made.