“The greatest measure of the 19th century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
These words are spoken by Ways & Means Committee Chairman and radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) in Lincoln, the new Abraham Lincoln biopic and political drama directed by Steven Spielberg which chronicles the last four months of the President’s life and the ill-gotten passing of the 13th amendment. They serve as the thesis of a script ambitiously tailored by Tony Kushner and based extensively on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Kushner, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 for Angels in America, spent six years doing research and turned in a first draft of 500 pages. He is the power player of the effort, and where past political dramas have focused on action-hero idealists, courtroom drama and Legally Blonde musical overtures, Kushner does what he does best, creating a story that closely ties the political and personal. Assisted by the gorgeous, deliberately-dusky world constructed by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Kushner illuminates the most enigmatic character in American history while expressing his complexities and courage, the nobility and clumsiness.
Lincoln’s cast is star-studded to say the least. Sally Field creates a Mary Todd Lincoln with exactly the right amount of hysteria and foreboding, whose enduring grief over the loss of her son Willie is the main vehicle for characterizing the duality of the President’s obligations. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Robert Lincoln, the President’s oldest son who is tortured by his parents’ forbiddance of his enlistment and whose witness of an army hospital is the most humanizing reminder of the war. Wonderful character actors saturate the film with David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Hal Holbrook as conservative Republican Preston Blair, Bruce McGill as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Mad Men’s Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, James Spader as a comically nefarious lobbyist, Lee Pace as the 13th Amendment’s primary contester Fernando Wood, and surprise of surprises, Girls’ Adam Driver as Samuel Beckwith. The crown jewel of course, is Daniel Day-Lewis.
Throughout his career, this actor of English-Irish descent has given life to a string of characters prominent in American historical myth. He has slipped into the skin of Arthur Miller’s iconic John Proctor, Last of the Mohicans’ heroic Hawkeye and Scorsese’s never-forgettable Bill the Butcher with uncanny ease. And while he has divulged some secrets in the past — that he taught himself to trap and skin animals for Mohicans, that he never left his wheelchair and practiced toe-dexterity diligently for My Left Foot, that he spent months becoming the athlete required to make him The Boxer’s Danny Flynn — this time he’s not telling. Spielberg says he does not need to know and would never ask. In a New York Times interview, the only hint Day-Lewis gives is that he spent some time with a box of photographs from the last four months of the President’s life: “I looked at them the way you sometimes look at your reflection in the mirror and wonder who that person is looking back at you.” He also requested that any British actors on set keep in character with American accents so as not to throw off his carefully-honed reedy and high-pitched voice. Regardless of how he arrived at his Oscar-worthy portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, Day-Lewis dubs it his favorite role to date, saying “I never ever felt that depth of love for another human being that I never met. I wish he had stayed with me forever.”
Though the creators of Lincoln put almost ridiculous amounts of effort into creating historical accuracy — duplicating specific wallpapers and the sound of Lincoln’s pocket watch — there was still room for entertainment value and artistic liberty in this piece. Moments of levity come from the President’s jokes and parables, as well as from the comically-heated debates in the House of Representatives, with streams of witty insults spearheaded by the notoriously hot-blooded Stevens (Jones). Knowing that the amendment must be twisted away from the racial equality argument in order to secure the moderate vote, Stevens bellows at an adversary (Pace), “How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior? You are more reptile than man, so low and flat, that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.” The narrative also makes quick plays on the viewer’s assumed prior knowledge — raise your hand if you saw that death-scene trick coming … and I will suh-mack it back down because you are lying.
Kushner’s script is a work of genius, tying together an appreciation for period idioms and Lincoln’s provincial Kentucky/Illinois influence without being over-the-top. Lincoln’s tendency toward parable and humor when conversing with his Cabinet are mixed deliberately with verbatim excerpts from some of his greatest speeches. The movie is bookended by an opening scene featuring the Gettysburg Address and a closing scene which is voiced over with words from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. This address, Kushner says, is the greatest speech written by any American, and the foundation for the way that he chose to tell the story. It reminds the American people that both the North and the South were responsible for the horrible bloodshed and it controversially asserted that the cause, continuance and end of the war were all fueled by the issue of slavery. Lincoln, a lifelong admirer of Shakespeare, is said to have drawn heavily on Claudius’ soliloquy in Hamlet in this speech. “My fault is past. O, what form of prayer can serve my turn?” it asks — how can we be forgiven when we retain the rewards of our offenses? What kind of nation did these people deserve, after the atrocities they so voluntarily committed against each other? These are harsh notions to present to a grieving country and Kushner stands in awe of them, saying “he believed in the people and he believed they could hear the truth.” The most moving scene of the movie is the reading of the 13th amendment, quietly, breath-takingly, by a voice whose absolute rightness of selection I will not spoil by disclosing.
“Can we choose to be born? Are we fitted to the times we’re born into?”
The question is posed by the President, in conjugation with his argument to his cabinet that there was no decision left to be made in regards to ratifying the 13th amendment. As much pressure as there was to put ending the war first on the list of priorities, Lincoln asserted, “[We are] here stepped out upon the world’s stage now with the fate of human dignity upon our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment.” And when Kushner reflects on Presidents who have stood on the world’s stage with comparable fates in their hands, he names only two names: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Obama. Regardless of your politics he says, we are met with opportunity to rebuild, and that one of the biggest obstacles we face is an “impatience on the part of a very good, very progressive people.” It is for this reason, Kushner and Spielberg agreed that Lincoln was not to be a movie about hero-worship, a longing for a reincarnation of a past great who could save our nation. It was meant to be an enlightening depiction of the complexities of democracy, a vision of ideological triumph that is both exalted and entirely mundane, an example of the “form of prayer” that could serve our collective turn.