Nov 15, 2012

The political process meets "Honest Abe."

Grade: A
Director: Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan)
Screenplay: Tony Kushner (Munich)
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (There will be Blood), Sally Field
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 120 min
by John DeSando

“He contained multitudes.”  Walt Whitman

A story about Abraham Lincoln’s 13th Amendment fight could be a snoozer in the hands of anyone else except director Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Together they bring alive the passage of one of the nineteenth century’s greatest pieces of legislation, freeing slaves for all time.

While the Civil War was coming to a close after 4 bloody years in 1865, Lincoln politicked for the amendment’s passage, knowing full well that if peace were obtained, the impetus for the amendment would vanish. So politics and war are inextricably tied together, and arguably the most noble American president bartered and lied his way to passage. 

Spielberg makes clear that sequestering the South’s negotiating team until passage was crucial, if not impeachable. The drama as votes are bought or cajoled is an apt companion to the catastrophic war that cost over a half million lives. Less rewarding as drama is Lincoln’s relationship with his wife, Mary (Sally Field), whose depression over the loss of her first child stalks her  a lifetime and makes for some less than sweet moments on screen.

But this film belongs to Lincoln, who, as memorably portrayed by Day-Lewis, is a leader of strong will peppered by a sense of humor and a relentless penchant for tales: The story of George Washington’s portrait in a British water closet is a hoot. Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens is essential Jones: gruff, blunt, ugly, and charismatic with a dollop of kindness no better exemplified than in his final scene in his bedroom.

Although this is occasionally a heavy-handed history lesson, it is my preferred way to learn.  I know now what the 13th Amendment is, and I am aware in our own time of the severity of  politics-- that great leaders must also be great politicians, with all the pejorative connotations our recent presidential election can conjure. Steven Spielberg brilliantly shows us that the process can be for the people and by the people and may not perish.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at
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