A Timely ‘Lincoln’

By Susan JAMES

The release of “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s epic new film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, was recently pushed back until after the presidential election. But Spielberg’s attempt to separate the current political landscape from the politics of Lincoln’s day was a futile gesture. The fractious in-fighting, partisanship, political deals and stratagems of a president trying to achieve a nearly unachievable political goal parallels our own time too precisely.

The film opens in the early days of 1865 with the Civil War still raging but a general feeling both in the North and South that it will soon be over.  Lincoln knows that this is the moment to push passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution through Congress, an amendment which would abolish slavery in all of the states forever.

The Confederacy is secretly putting out peace feelers and if that becomes public knowledge, any support for ending the war by passing the amendment will vanish. The Emancipation Proclamation is only two years old but it was a proclamation made under executive war time powers and might not hold up in the courts once the war is over. If Lincoln’s actions are reversed, four million people could be forced back into bondage. The political stakes are high and only a Constitutional amendment can secure a permanent legal recognition of the end of slavery.

So begins the president’s hard-fought battle to collect enough votes to get the amendment through the House of Representatives. The moves in this battle will be familiar to anyone who has seen the 1972 film “1776” or paid any attention to U.S. politics over the last decade. We, the audience, know what the outcome will be but that doesn’t make the road to victory any less riveting.

Day-Lewis is a compelling and charismatic Lincoln, the one man who sees the future clearly and is constantly frustrated by others who can’t see beyond their own personal agendas. His shifts from backwoods storyteller to incisive politician to doting father to agonized husband make the actor’s performance one to watch come Oscar time.

But he is only the tip of a very forceful iceberg. Sally Field’s Mary Lincoln is a nuanced and fascinating portrait of a woman who is at once fiercely supportive of her husband’s political goals, crippled by mind-numbing migraines and devastated by grief at the death of her young son Willie. David Strathairn’s Machiavellian Secretary of State William Seward, once Lincoln’s enemy and rival and now his right hand, is a tremendous performance showing an ambitious man who has subordinated his own ambition to another’s vision.

Each character has been fully crafted and plays an integral part in the complex story that screenwriter Tony Kushner has spun from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 bestseller, “Team of Rivals.”

Because this is Spielberg, it deals with grandiose and overarching themes in a masterful fashion. Because this is Spielberg, there are lapses into sentimentality and perhaps a few too many grand man flourishes. But these are minor quibbles in a major motion picture whose story is as relevant now as it was in 1865 and whose players are alternately as human, as prescient, as stubborn and as obtuse as those currently inhabiting the halls of our nation’s capital.

See you at the movies!