Semi-honest Abe

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Think I can win that Movember contest?

Rated 3.0

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is one of the indispensable books about the Civil War. In the new movie Lincoln, writer Tony Kushner and director Steven Spielberg, for reasons of their own, decide to dispense with 911 pages of Goodwin’s book, retaining only the five pages dealing with the passage of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery—what would in time become the 13th Amendment.

I say “would in time become” because, of course, it didn’t become the 13th Amendment until it was ratified. Yet throughout the movie, everyone—Lincoln himself (Daniel Day-Lewis), Secretary of State William H. Seward (David Strathairn), Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), even Lincoln’s wife Mary (Sally Field)—refers to it by its future number, even as it sits in Congress with passage, let alone ratification, far from assured. It’s an odd lapse in a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (it’s like having a character proclaim, “Goodbye, I’m off to the Thirty Years’ War!”), but a telling one. It tells us that the movie’s vantage point is not the 1865 in which it is set, but the 2012 in which it was made.

This is hardly new in historical biopics, but Spielberg claimed to aspire otherwise: “I did not want to make a movie about a monument,” he has said. Yet time and time again, as Lincoln launches into another of his humorous yet strangely pertinent anecdotes, Spielberg resorts to exactly the same ploy: The room falls silent as a cathedral, every eye is turned to Abe, and Spielberg’s camera creeps slowly in toward the bearded face, as if on tiptoe, afraid to spoil this golden moment. Spielberg behaves as if he’s letting us eavesdrop on the parables of Jesus.

The 13th Amendment was a great achievement, no error, and the movie correctly points out its importance to Lincoln; he wasn’t at all sure his Emancipation Proclamation—issued as a military necessity—would hold up once the war was over. In the movie, the task of rounding up Democrats for the required two-thirds vote falls to Republican operative W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), who has leeway for the kind of coaxing, cajolery and enticement that might appear unseemly coming directly from the president. This means that where Goodwin wrote about Lincoln’s political genius in dealing with his fractious cabinet, Kushner focuses on the political shenanigans of W.N. Bilbo on this one issue. Lincoln becomes like Shakespeare’s Henry IV—the title role in name, but in fact a supporting player in the drama named after him. Old Abe doesn’t even get to deliver his own Gettysburg Address, but must sit patiently, back to camera and out of focus, while his own speech is recited to him by two Union soldiers who found the time to memorize it from the newspapers (like generations of schoolchildren hence).

Of course, it would take better actors than those two walk-on soldiers, or even the worthy Spader, to make a supporting actor of Daniel Day-Lewis, and his performance—more than the dramatic fripperies of Kushner’s script or the solemn hero-worship of Spielberg’s staging—is the best reason to see Lincoln. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is as deceptively folksy as Lincoln by all accounts was, and he captures another side of Lincoln that his contemporaries commented on but which is lost to us because of the limits of 1860s photography: Day-Lewis shows us how easily and often Lincoln smiled.

Other actors are well-cast and well-behaved: Strathairn as Seward, Jones as Stevens (it’s really the only performance Jones has, but it’s appropriate here). I was particularly impressed with the casting of Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy; it’s little more than a cameo, but Haley is a perfect match for the frail, borderline-creepy-looking Stephens. As Mary Lincoln, Sally Field can’t help overacting, and her scenes are so ill-written, it’s hard to blame her. Mary Lincoln may have been mad as a hatter, but I don’t believe she ever said a word that comes out of Sally Field’s mouth here. (Well, words, yes. But sentences? No.)

See Lincoln for Daniel Day-Lewis, but read Team of Rivals for Lincoln, and imagine Daniel Day-Lewis spinning you that yarn.