How Lincoln makes high drama out of messy politics.
As a prestigious Hollywood production about one of America’s most beloved leaders, Lincoln inevitably draws comparisons with other films about great men and women who’ve changed the course of history. Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis’s new bid for Oscar glory is also the latest addition to a long lineage of screen portraits of our southern neighbour’s 16th president, a group that ranges from John Ford’s 1939 classic, Young Mr. Lincoln, to last summer’s more factually dubious Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Nevertheless, at least one viewer has pointed out that Spielberg’s film—which charts the efforts of Lincoln and his allies to get Congress to pass the constitutional amendment to abolish slavery during the final months of the Civil War—has a more unexpected precedent. “I don’t entirely mean this as a criticism,” tweeted American critic Sam Adams recently, “but Lincoln is like the most eloquent episode of Schoolhouse Rock! ever made.”
That’s not such a facetious statement. More specifically, Lincoln could be seen as a variation on the educational cartoon series’ iconic episode about how a bill becomes a law. Really, all that’s missing from Spielberg’s movie is a chance for an animated embodiment of the 13th Amendment to sing the plaintive Schoolhouse lament, “I’m Just a Bill.”
Again, this is not to Lincoln’s detriment. Instead, it’s a testament to the film’s courage and intelligence that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner—who based his script on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 bestseller, Team of Rivals—delve so deeply into the rhetorical duels, congressional arm-twisting, fancy legal footwork, and backroom deal-making that led to the passing of the 13th Amendment. The result is something much rarer than another movie about politicians—it’s a movie about politics.
For all the films that have featured square-jawed men gesticulating behind podiums, precious few have principally concerned themselves with the political process. Far more common are screen biographies that prioritize the story of a leader’s career-spanning personal arc rather than any specific scuffles. In another popular subset, a newcomer to the political world is shocked to discover just how dirty the game can get—a narrative we see in everything from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to The Ides of March. Either way, our hero somehow stays above the fray—unless, of course, the hero’s pursuit of power has left him as corrupt and morally bankrupt as the system itself. (Oliver Stone proved his fondness for the latter kind of cautionary tale with Nixon and W.)
Yet Lincoln continually makes it clear that however righteous its subject was, he was also a creature of that system, and could play dirty if it meant achieving his goals. One of the president’s first acts after declaring his intentions for the amendment is to authorize a trio of scallywag lobbyists—played with venal relish by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader—to essentially buy the votes of Democrat congressmen with offers of lucrative postings. Nor is this the only evidence of chicanery performed by Lincoln and his Republican allies.
Whereas films about politicians have typically adopted a more disapproving tone towards such underhanded activity, here it’s presented as neither right nor wrong. It’s just how the game is played. Furthermore, Spielberg and Kushner are keen to emphasize that the challenge of forging agreements across party lines on Capitol Hill was as formidable in Lincoln’s time as it remains in ours.
Given its focus on the many means by which the amendment was passed, Lincoln aims to celebrate its subject not so much for his leadership skills or high-minded principles as for his “political genius,” to borrow the phrase in the subtitle of Goodwin’s book.
For that reason, Spielberg’s movie has a different set of bedfellows than Hollywood’s other portraits of great presidents. Indeed, it shares more with Milk, another unusual example of a film about a politician in that it showed the many setbacks and failures that pave the way for true change. British screenwriter Peter Morgan’s studies of Tony Blair in the TV films The Deal and The Special Relationship display a similar fondness for the mucky complexities of the political world, as do the works of unapologetically polemical filmmakers like Ken Loach and Peter Watkins.
Such is the insight and deftness with which Spielberg and Kushner show what the American political process truly entails that it’s a shame Lincoln wasn’t compulsory viewing for the voters who’ve just gone to the polls. Then again, most of the electorate prefers to believe their candidates are somehow above the game they try so fiercely to win.