Day-Lewis Mesmerizes As Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln has been given to us in many forms. He’s the granite savior of the Union, watching over us as Washington’s most famous monument. He’s the Indiana rail splitter, the embodiment of the common man’s story of rags-to-riches – or to the highest office in the land. He’s “Father Abraham,” who freed the country’s 4 million slaves by waging war against the secessionist South, a war that resulted in the deaths of 600,000 Americans, but gave the nation “a new birth of freedom.”

His contemporaries and subsequent biographers have built the personal Lincoln, melancholic because of a bad relationship with his father, the death of two of his sons in childhood, and marriage to a woman more deeply troubled than he. But they also tell of a self-taught country lawyer with a sense of humor and a bag of stories that charmed juries and neighbors as an Illinois state representative, a one-term United States congressman and a moderately wealthy man. Lincoln emerges from all of the thousands of words that have been written about him, from the myths that have followed him, and from the unalloyed hero worship of a nation, as the most layered figure in American history.

But in his new Lincoln, filmmaker Steven Spielberg tells about another Lincoln – newly elected to a second term and trying to secure passage of the 13th Amendment, the one that reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The amendment has already passed the Senate, and Lincoln is certain he has a sufficient number of states with legislatures ready to ratify it. But the House is split. Conservative border state Republican members hesitate. In exchange for their support they want peace overtures from the South to be heard before the roads clear and “the spring slaughter commences.” Lincoln agrees.

Then he sets to work among the lame-duck Democrats who’ve lost seats and the timorous in his own party who represent districts wherein the majority of the electorate would never admit the equality of blacks. Lincoln brings in a trio of political operatives. They promise the oldest political currency of all: lucrative political appointments in exchange for votes. They harass and harangue, buck up the frightened and appeal to every human motive save idealism.

But the toughest sell of all are the staunchest friends of the Negro, the abolitionist members, personified by Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens had argued the “equality” of blacks with whites, an idea the majority, including Lincoln himself, doubted. In order to see the amendment through, Stevens compromises. He baldly renounces his long-held support for full equality and states that he seeks “equality before the law and nothing more.”

Lincoln gets his votes, and the 13th Amendment passes. That’s Spielberg’s picture: a vote on an amendment before the U.S. House of Representatives, barter and sale, obstructionism, arm-twisting, appeals to idealism and self-interest and blessed, blessed compromise. It is, in short, about democratic government as it has always been practiced: ignoble means in the service of noble, if compromised ends.

That may sound like dull stuff, but add Daniel DayLewis’s mesmerizing performance as Lincoln, full of the wit, wisdom and resolve possessed by this endlessly complex man, and you have a superb movie for any political season.