Those of us who are inextricably obsessed with politics have been lucky to witness two truly great modern political films featuring two uncanny portrayals of martyred presidents. Thirteen Days, with Bruce Greenwood as JFK, is as appropriate a lesson about modern political leadership as it was a brilliantly constructed historical drama about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy White House. And, likewise, Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln during the final months of the American Civil War when the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was almost abandoned, is a timeless study in political process, compromise, negotiation and opportunism — the latter in the most positive sense.
These were the stakes:
January, 1865. With the Confederate Army pinned down in Petersburg, Virginia and on the verge of collapse, the end of the war was tantalizingly close. The Emancipation Proclamation was merely a wartime executive order, and, as was dramatized in the movie with a riveting White House cabinet debate, dubiously legal. If the war ended, the proclamation would be picked apart by the courts. So the Lincoln administration needed a constitutional amendment or else the freed slaves would eventually be returned to slavery after the war.
The 13th Amendment had already been passed through the Republican-controlled Senate, and so the crazy House of Representatives was next in line — but lacking a necessary two-thirds majority by 20 votes. (I told you. The movie is almost more about high stakes politics than Lincoln himself.)
Lincoln’s White House team, along with the abolitionist congressmen, led by the amazing Tommy Lee Jones as chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee Thaddeus Stevens, needed the votes of several Democrats and the conservative wing of the Republican Party to pass the amendment — and too many members of this unlikely coalition would only back the amendment as a means to ending the war. If the war had ended, swing congressmen wouldn’t have seen any need for the amendment, and Lincoln would’ve lost their votes.
So, Lincoln’s political conundrum: With a secret Confederate peace delegation on the way to Washington, should Lincoln negotiate with the Confederacy and accept a deal to immediately end the war and subsequently risk the 13th Amendment? Or should he turn down overtures for peace, pass the amendment and hope the war ends before Spring arrives and the carnage resumes? And will he have the votes to do it?
If the amendment failed, he will have tempted another year of horrifying civil war; African Americans in the South would eventually be returned to slavery; and Lincoln will have lost the best opportunity to resolve the 89-year-old American slavery crisis.
And the impending “fiscal cliff” sounds intense?
In addition to the political through-line of the movie, the performances were, as you’ve probably heard, spot on. Yes, Daniel Day-Lewis was Lincoln. It was eery. He was intense, folksy, beaten-down and surprisingly hilarious (the story about a painting of George Washington is especially great).
Tommy Lee Jones, as Stevens, was almost as good as Day-Lewis, and a scene in the White House basement between Lincoln and Stevens was probably the most poignant of the film. In it, Lincoln explained to Stevens that it’s fine to have a moral compass aimed true north, but it’s worthless if, while pursuing it, you get trapped in a swamp.
Surprisingly, James Spader as the scuzzy proto-lobbyist W.N. Bilbo, was tremendously entertaining in a slimy sort of way. I kept thinking his character could’ve fit perfectly into the Deadwood universe. And Sally Field was soul-crushingly good as the perpetually mournful and borderline-personality-disorder-suffering First Lady.
I won’t spoil any more of it for you. I will say, however, there were two areas where Spielberg should’ve been more restrained. The weakest thing about the movie was — and this is a first — the John Williams score. The movie could’ve been entirely music-free and it would’ve been improved by it. The stakes were clear and the triumphs were huge. We didn’t need soaring orchestration to tell us that. Not this time. The other mild gripe was the tendency to lapse into grandiose speechifying. Just about every Civil War era movie I’ve seen has been sucked into the marble-statue vortex. Again, there wasn’t any need for it. Then again, Daniel Day-Lewis’ humanizing of Lincoln kept the melodrama to a bare minimum.
And finally, you will definitely see things that vindicate the actions and political approach of our current president, and you might see a few areas upon which he could improve (though few if any chief executives could live up to Lincoln’s precedent). From where I’m sitting, it’s more of the former than the latter. But I couldn’t help but to think that this wasn’t just about President Lincoln or President Obama or any president who’s forced to govern during a history-changing crisis. It’s a movie about American politics and democracy more than anything else, and, just like Thirteen Days before it, it was told from the perspective of several weeks (and one congressional vote) in history when it all could’ve gone horribly, horribly awry.