A film about Abraham Lincoln must be a difficult endeavor. The simple facts of the man’s life story offer so many opportunities for any filmmaker to be weighed down by sentimentality and theatrics. It is for this reason that Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is so remarkable, because it effectively evokes the spirit of the man without canonizing him; it highlights the quotidian reality of his life without reminding us at every turn of his immense historical importance.
“Lincoln” focuses on the final months of Lincoln’s life, as he attempted to end the war and to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. The majority of the film follows the political process of getting the amendment passed. Though parliamentary procedure may not seem like rich cinematic material, the film is absorbing in its entirety.
In portraying the political process, Spielberg depicts Lincoln as a shrewd, pragmatic politician who is unafraid to step outside the strict confines of the law. In a wonderful scene in which Lincoln addresses his cabinet, he admits the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation was dubious at best, which is why an anti-slavery amendment must be added to the Constitution by any means necessary before the South rejoins the Union and blocks it. Other moments depict Lincoln reflecting on the grave consequences of the war; addressing General Grant, he states, “We’ve made it possible for each other to do terrible things.” Moments like these offer more depth to the portrayal of Lincoln (brilliantly realized by Daniel Day-Lewis) whose saintly historical persona does not do justice to the man’s complexities.
Perhaps Spielberg’s greatest achievement with “Lincoln” is that he brings us back to the realities and dialogues of the era. In looking back at history, so many of the great moments seem inevitable, but at the time of their happening, those moments were anything but. While watching “Lincoln,” all feelings of inevitability vanished, and I felt like I could personally understand the political struggle to end slavery with a real sense of immediacy and passion.
Devin Vaughn of Chicago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.