Movie Review: Lincoln

Nov 22, 2012

The November Smithsonian magazine and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin agree on the historical accuracy of Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln and Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal of Lincoln as a man of such inexhaustible patience and iron self-control as to almost dilute the drama of the story of the late-Civil-War campaign to let the Thirteenth Amendment forbidding slavery ratified into the Constitution. The story is fascinating in its own right, and important as a reflection of the sometimes frustrating way our government has to work: Lincoln's cause it surely right, but the methods he has to use are so questionable as to, by his own admission, verge on the illegal, and suggestive of the kinds of corruption we object to in Washington today. They include open bribery and especially trading in appointive offices and most shockingly, interference with a possible peace conference that might have ended the war and cut off all possibility of abolishing slavery in the United States in the 1860s. People really ought to see it for its light on our way of government at the fundamental level.

Unfortunately, details on the various corruption are so sketchy that they seem repetitious and we don't seem to be getting anywhere, so Lincoln's is not the frustration at the lack of progress. And Day-Lewis will disappoint those who look for the customary oratory and high drama of Abraham Lincoln movies; this one is no doubt what really happened.

Still, the parade of support characters, led by a surprising Sally Field as the often-villified Mary Todd Lincoln and including a hardly recognizable James Spader and the ever-reliable David Sraithairn, keep things varied and lively. Lincoln is a rare combination of enlightenment and education; I hope it does good business.