Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is a different film than one would expect from the brilliant filmmaker responsible for unforgettable films like “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Unlike those two features, “Lincoln” takes place on a much smaller scale.
When its trailer arrived in theaters several months ago, many viewers undoubtedly believed that the film would attempt to tell Abraham Lincoln’s complete story, focusing on a young Illinois lawyer who became president and saved the Union from self-destruction. But this movie isn’t about that, nor is it simply a noble and simplistic tribute to the 16th President. The film is, instead, a well-told story about a good man who cajoled, manipulated and bravely fought to end slavery through the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. p>
Despite the fact that the North was winning the Civil War when the amendment was passionately debated in Congress a few months after Lincoln's reelection, its passage was far from assured. To pass it, the president and his team of former rivals would have to overcome naysayers, pacifists and Democrats alike who were willing to do whatever was necessary to prevent it from becoming law.
The film begins with a brief battle sequence that shows the noble president watching as soldiers prepare for engagement. In the midst of the fighting, young men- who may lose their lives in a matter of moments—look lovingly at the quiet figure who sits above them. Like fans approaching their idol, they quote back to Lincoln portions of the Gettysburg Address and stand in quiet wonder at a man who they recognize is forever changing the course of their country.
As the film continues, it focuses less on the battlefield of war and more on the political landscape where the fight to pass the amendment is taking place. Instead of the grim details of war, Spielberg puts the camera in the dark halls of Congress where threats, manipulations and lies are all used to get legislators to say yes.
As the inevitable victory of the North over the South approaches, some legislators and members of Lincoln’s administration- including Secretary of State and one-time political rival William Steward (David Strathairn)—argue fervently that ending the war quickly should be their highest priority. Ending slavery, they state, is a secondary concern. Others, including the powerful Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) are more focused on punishing the South after the war than anything else.
Lincoln rejects both ideas. He rejects the idea that ending the war at the cost of enduring more years of slavery is necessary and he disputes the notion that punishing the South after the war has ended is a noble goal. He is a man who yearns for peace but who is unwilling to compromise his values to achieve it.
Throughout the movie, Lincoln is depicted as something we don’t often view him as: a politician. Like a great politician, he is able to tell a grand story to a group of people with each believing that the story was intended for them. But unlike many politicians, Lincoln was—at considerable risk to both his political fortunes and his legacy— willing to fight for an unpopular position simply because above everything else, he knew it was right.
Many will likely dislike how Spielberg has settled his story around something as seemingly simple as the passage of an amendment. But in deciding to tell the story on a small scale, the director has brought attention to Lincoln the man-- rather than Lincoln the legend-- and made this great leader into a relatable figure who achieved greatness by never backing down from the principle that all men should be free.