Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a narrowly focused look at a critical portion of Abraham Lincoln’s tenure as President of the United States. It is an examination of the events that took place in the aftermath of Lincoln’s re-election in November of 1864 until the House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment in January of 1865.
Yes, it goes on for a short bit afterward, up until Lincoln’s death by assassin in April of 1865, but the critical matter is what takes place during those very turbulent months until the vote.
Remember, in those days, there was a longer period of time between election and inauguration. The President and the members of the Congress did not take office until March in those days. As such, there was more time after the election for the ‘lame duck’ Congress to pass legislation. Lincoln planned to push the 13th Amendment through the house during this time. It had passed the Senate the prior year but was defeated in the House.
Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is loved by the people but everyone is tired of war. His Secretary of State, William Seward (David Straithairn) wanted to see peace before trying to force an amendment to the Constitution through the House, when he thought there was little chance of passage. The leader of the Radical Republicans, who wanted slavery abolished and to ultimately see blacks be given full equality (including the right to vote) was Representative Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones).
The film focuses much of its attention on the struggle to obtain the votes needed by holding all of the Republicans in the House together as a bloc, while getting enough of the Democrats to vote yes or abstain on an issue that was the focus of their party platform.
Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) had her own issues to deal with. She would never fully recover from the loss of their son, William and was adamant that their other son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), not join the Union Army.
This film is about the struggle to push this Amendment through the House while finding a way to end the war, either through a negotiated peace, or by a Union victory. I’ll let historians debate over whether or not the portrayal of the usage of patronage by Seward’s cronies, at the direction of the President, is accurate or not. The other historical details are very well done, down to the detail of having Captain Robert Lincoln present when General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox and having the right vote totals read in the House’s vote.
Day-Lewis brings Abraham Lincoln to life from the historical page. Straithairn is also wonderful as Secretary of State Seward, who is more famous for having engineered the purchase of Alaska rather than his role in bringing the Civil War to an end. Sally Field gives her best performance in years as Mrs. Lincoln. The writing is excellent, the dialogue just right for the period. Spielberg has been on a roll in recent years and he continues to engage in magnificent filmmaking.
Not only is this first-rate entertainment, this film belongs in the U.S. History classroom when teaching the history of how slavery came to an end. Don’t miss it.