In pursuit of ‘A More Perfect Union’
November 23, 2012
Much of Spielberg’s “Lincoln” occurs in Lincoln’s office, a location recreated in every detail, including its wallpaper and the tick of Lincoln’s pocket watch. The director, accustomed to dressing comfortably on set, came to work each day wearing a suit in order to better help his actors stay in character.
Based in part on “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the film focuses on the months that followed Lincoln’s re-election – a period when the Civil War seemed near its end, prompting the president to seek the passage of the 13th Amendment that would abolish slavery. Lincoln believed that those opposed to its passage could only be persuaded to vote in its favor as a means to end the Civil War. Should the war end without passing the amendment, then the country would remain so divided that neither the union, nor the peace, would stand. To achieve his goal, Lincoln undertook a campaign of lies, bribery and threats, that included the delay of a negotiated peace, prior to passing the amendment.
The script and Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance depict Lincoln’s tough-mindedness. This quality quietly materializes from the president’s sidelong glances, or arises from a folksy anecdote used by Lincoln to make his point.
The president’s unconditional love is mainly reserved for his young son Tad, a boy Lincoln indulges without apology.
Mary Todd Lincoln, referred to as Molly by her husband, is sympathetically portrayed by Sally Field, who lobbied Spielberg for the role, claiming she felt a connection to Lincoln’s wife. Field’s bond with the character exceeds that felt by Lincoln, a figure uncomfortable with intimate relationships. Lincoln fails to confide his political intentions to his wife and is loath to incur her wrath or to confront her raw, powerful emotions.
Tommy Lee Jones makes an unexpectedly welcome choice for Thaddeus Stevens, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee whose wig was shaped the same way all around so that he need not pay attention to how it was placed upon his head. Passionate on the subject of equality for all races, Stevens admonishes Lincoln, “I lead. You should try it some time.” Lincoln prefers to cajole and threaten, but when it comes to securing a favorable vote for abolition, Stevens humorously misrepresents his true feelings, in order to make the amendment more palatable to his fellow congressmen.
Lincoln’s subterfuge even extends to his loyal secretary of state, William Seward. Portrayed with both deference and indignation by David Strathairn, rather than struggle with the ethics of Lincoln’s omissions, Seward fears that Lincoln’s maneuvering will be exposed, and therefore prevent the amendment from passing.
Director Spielberg makes plentiful use of conjecture in an effort to prove that our 16th and most beloved president, was a saint despite his unethical practices. So what happened to our right to examine the facts and draw our own conclusions? Has Mr. Spielberg forgotten that “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time?”