This is hands-down the best movie of the year, and it may be one of the best political movies of all time.
Except for a few battlefield scenes, the movie is a series of conversations in small rooms, and it runs 2 1/2 hours. I didn’t check my watch once.
Most of the movie deals with the few weeks leading up to the adoption of the 13th Amendment, in early 1865. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed the slaves in the Confederate states, not the ones in slaveholding states that stayed with the Union. And it was based on the Constitutional “war powers” of the executive, as ambiguous then as they are now. Lincoln was concerned, probably correctly, that once the Confederate states were readmitted to the Union, some future Congress, or future Court, would decide that Lincoln had exceeded his authority in, essentially, expropriating the property of private citizens without due process. So he wanted to get a Constitutional amendment to abolish slavery in the US forever.
But getting a 2/3 majority was tricky. Some free-state Congressmen were opposed to slavery, but were reluctant to pass an amendment that would ultimately lead to black Americans getting the franchise. Some were out-and-out bigots. So ending slavery was no foregone conclusion, even though the war was won. It’s riveting stuff, even though you know how it ends.
I’m not generally a fan of Tony Kushner (I thought Angels in America was unwatchable), but his Lincoln screenplay creates a Washington that is both unimaginably different (ordinary citizens drop in on the President on “public days”) and surprisingly familiar (lobbyists, and, with the telegraph, the beginnings of real-time communication). All the same, I’ll bet some of the best lines (“mephitic emissions”) came from the Congressional Record.
Daniel Day Lewis creates a Lincoln that combines the gravitas of Obama, the folksy charm of Reagan, the political ruthlessness of LBJ, the squeaky voice of George W. Bush, and the peculiar gait (which may be DDL’s own invention) of a man whose arms and legs are too big for him (Lincoln is believed to have suffered from Marfans syndrome, which results in unusually long limbs.) However he does it, it works. Once again, the Oscar is DDL’s to lose.
The supporting cast is great too. Nobody frets like Sally Field. Of particular note is Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the “Radical Republican” faction. Stevens is usually portrayed by the (mostly) Southern historians of the Civil War as the horned toad of Reconstruction. He did indeeed want to punish the Confederate leaders for their rebellion. But he was also a fierce supporter of racial equality, decades ahead of his time.
Meta-fun — this is the kind of movie where all kinds of actors you know you’ve seen somewhere before show up in small roles. Extra credit if you recognize Jared Harris (“Lane Price” in TV’s Mad Men) as US Grant. Super Lottery winner if you recognize Animal House’s D-Day as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
Run don’t walk — this movie is a must-see for political junkies