A limping Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) returns home, takes his wig off, and hands the 13th amendment voting record to his black lover. As the two climb into bed, the Radical Republican asks his lover to reads the document aloud. Indeed, reading the amendment's text aloud is the closest any black character gets to creating political change in Steven Spielberg's historically skewed "Lincoln."
The film centers on President Lincoln's (Daniel Day-Lewis) campaign to pass the 13th amendment in the House of Representatives, which outlawed slavery in the United States. Through corruption, persuasion, and patronage, Lincoln is able to get the Constitution amended. Spielberg stresses unity for a fractured nation whose 112th Congress failed to repeal Obamacare thirty-three times, blocked a U.N. disabilities protection treaty, and delayed voting on the Hurricane Sandy relief bill.
The screenplay by Tony Kushner features snappy dialogue and the sense of loneliness that Lincoln experienced as Commander-in-Chief during the Civil War. Verbal political sparring and President Lincoln's humorous anecdotes are particularly poignant. Kushner's writing stresses the emotional turmoil in Lincoln's mind as he grips with moral decisions on the future of the peculiar institution, particularly his conversations with Secretary of State William Seward, and howling sessions with his wife, Mary Todd.
The sets balance Lincoln as a political leader and as a father: the grandeur of the White House generates hope in American republican ideals, while rooms in the executive mansion remain familiar enough to hold intimate family conversations. The costumes maintain historical accuracy, particularly Lincoln's elegant-yet-Kentucky-simple outfits.
The acting in this film inspires faith in the American democratic process. Day-Lewis masterfully depicts the torment of a divided nation while helping the country achieve higher ideals. His unwavering belief in permanently eliminating slavery outside of a war measure context expresses American egalitarian ideals.
Mary Todd Lincoln's (Sally Field) struggle to maintain hope sharpens the nation's fragmentation. During hollow social functions, she creates empathy by putting on a brave face as First Lady. Her conversation with Rep. Stevens when she told him the public would never love him as much as her husband was cutting and brilliant.
Aesthetically, this film does a wonderful job recreating mid-19th century division and anxiety; but lack of black political participation remains problematic and perpetuates an inaccurate historical narrative. For all Spielberg's historical celebrity dropping (Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Seward), Frederick Douglass remains a glowing omission.