Lincoln at 10: Portrait of a President as a Political Master
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, released in November of 2012 – 10 years ago this month — was about as prestigious as prestige projects get. It was adapted from (a small part of) Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis playing the lead role.
Spielberg directed, with Tony Kushner writing the screenplay, and the supporting cast was a who’s who of great actors: Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, David Costabile, Bruce McGill, Sally Field, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Walton Goggins.
There are a lot of aspects of Lincoln’s life and presidency that the film could have concentrated on. Spielberg could have mounted one of his ten-episode HBO series about Lincoln’s entire life, and it probably would have been great.
But Spielberg and Kushner chose a counterintuitive one that was probably the best possible: The passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the period before and after it. The film is essentially a procedural of how Lincoln and his allies got the Amendment through, through political skill, twisting of arms, and other tactics.
The film was one of several around the same time, the others being Gus Van Sant’s Milk and Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which told the story of a heroic political figure from history, but did so by showing the genius of that person’s political acumen.
Yes, we see Lincoln giving powerful speeches, as he was known to do. But there’s a lot more: His advisers whipping votes, the big vote at the end in the House of Representatives, and in the background, Tommy Lee Jones’ aging abolitionist, Stevens, fighting to stamp out slavery even sooner.
Spielberg made Lincoln a year after the 2011 double-dip of The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse; this next film after Lincoln, three years later, was 2015’s Bridge of Spies. It was his second collaboration with Kushner, after 2005’s Munich, and would be followed by West Side Story and The Fabelmans.
I saw Lincoln for the first time the night of the second presidential debate in 2012, between Obama and Romney. Viewers were welcome to draw their own political parallels from the film. I noticed, during an immigration great the following year, that some pundits were worried illegal immigrants could one day gain the vote; in Lincoln, one of the members of Congress made the same statement about slaves.
Lincoln was a success, earning over $182 million at the box office just in North America, and was pretty much universally positively reviewed. It was nominated for 12 Oscars, although it only won Best Actor for Lewis and Best Production Design, continuing Spielberg’s continuing Best Picture/Best Director drought that dates back to Schindler’s List in 1993. He’ll have another shot to break it later this year with The Fabelmans.
Lincoln doesn’t go at the top of Spielberg’s filmography, but it’s easily in the top third.