I’ve viewed Lincoln twice at this point. The bustling, crowded cast, as packed as that of a 1970s disaster movie and captained by an astounding Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, doesn’t have one dud. Spotting Richmond and Petersburg locales, along with recognizable faces from our citizenry, makes for a somewhat distracting game of “I Spy," but at its entertaining best, Lincoln works as The West Wing set in the 19th century, mixed with the grit and mud of Deadwood. The trio of pollitical fixers hired to muscle through approval of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and an almost-unrecognizable James Spader) stir up the majestic proceedings like antic process servers. They wheedle, cajole and outright bribe any representatives reluctant to add their names as sponsors to the effort to outlaw slavery. If Tommy Lee Jones' hurled vituperations as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens doesn't create an Insult Device, I'll be surprised.
I was equally impressed by the lush beauty created by cinematographer and frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminiski — Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are two notable titles under his belt. Spielberg has said that period paintings were consulted to create the look of Lincoln — take your bow, Thomas Eakins.
The White House interiors built within a former AMF bowling center in Hanover County looked convincing due to an artistic direction team that included Curt Beech (The Help, The Social Network, Star Trek). The John Williams score barely registered, but what I noticed owed a great deal to Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait.
Spielberg’s endeavor to bring Lincoln to the screen began in 1999, before the lady that started this great big movie, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, had even finished her 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The director enlisted Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner to adapt the book, and during the arduous process, he may have yearned for the seven hours of his massive Angels in America series of stage plays. Lincoln, at more than two hours, is in part derived from the final 50 pages of Goodwin’s book. Spielberg doesn’t direct miniseries (though he's co-produced some notable entries in the form), but in some ways, I wish he’d made this the exception, because his bursting-at-the-seams film wants desperately to be at least two.
Following a reception after the Second Inaugural's “malice toward none, charity for all” speech, former slave and revered abolitionist Frederick Douglass was almost physically removed from the White House due to a standing rule of banning people of color, “complying with an old custom,” Douglass later wrote.
Word passed to Lincoln caused Douglass to get ushered in amid the hundreds of whites gathered there, and Lincoln greeted him as a close friend. The two had previously conferred and corresponded. Lincoln wanted to know what Douglass thought of his speech. Douglass described it as a “sacred effort.” This scene embraces three pages in the Team of Rivals chapter before the one Spielberg and Kushner centered on. The Second Inaugural provides brackets to the film, but Douglass isn’t mentioned.
In Lincoln, part of the role fulfilled by Douglass in reality — advocating to Lincoln for black civil rights — goes to actor David Oyelowo as Corporal Ira Clark. Clark addresses the inequality of pay and promotions among blacks in the Union army and then finishes the halting recitation of the Gettysburg Address by two white soldiers. Vintage Spielberg, the scene is theatrically composed, though compared to the real incident with Douglass, it verges on hokey. Mary Lincoln’s “secret sharer,” her seamstress and confidante Elizabeth Keckly, is portrayed by Gloria Reuben, but no mention is made of Keckly’s efforts to aid and organize newly freed blacks in Washington, D.C.
Once the dramatic dénouement is reached with the 13th Amendment's passage, the last half hour of the film unfolds in broad, gorgeous strokes. Wider audiences outside Richmond may not realize that the burning city is supposed to be our town, and that retreating Confederates set a few blazes on purpose that winds whipped into a catastrophe.
The next day, Lincoln visited, holding the left hand of his son Tad (who has a significant role in the film). I get into all that here and here, and with Richmond National Battlefield Parks historian Mike Gorman in the current issue.
Finally, in one way, Lincoln is a buddy picture — the president and his secretary of state, William H. Seward, played with convivial, cigar-smoke-shrouded ease by David Strathairn. Day-Lewis and Strathairn bring a solid, warm chemistry to the relationship, but near the end of the film, Seward vanishes. In April 1865, he suffered injuries in a carriage accident, and while convalescing, he received terrible knife wounds when John WIlkes Booth accomplice Lewis Paine broke into his house. None of this is mentioned.
As always, truth trumps fiction, but the film, even for its faults, is worth seeing as an entertainment. You want the meaty stuff? Get Goodwin’s book.