There’s a lot of waiting in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln: for news, for a decision, for a vote, for an opinion, for the end of the Civil War. Not much happens during the waiting. People articulate positions, let us know what they stand for. Lincoln himself doesn’t say much. He listens, does quite a bit of walking off down lonely corridors, plays with his small son, gets periodic barrages of abuse from his wife. When he does talk, he mainly expresses puzzlement, tells stories, makes jokes. A man who is surprised to see the president on the dark and seedy streets of the wrong side of Washington says in language that may seem a little advanced for the 1860s: ‘Well, I’ll be fucked.’ Lincoln says: ‘I wouldn’t bet against it.’

The posters for the movie, its length (two and a half hours) and the general air of piety that surrounds Lincoln’s name lead us to expect some sort of epic, Saving President Abe, or Close Encounters of the Grandiose Kind. But this film isn’t an epic, even of waiting. It’s a scrappy, patient, often moving, only sometimes too holy picture of a man trying to get a deal done. The deal has to do with slavery, and the war is a grisly distraction. If the North makes peace with the South – the South is ready for peace by the time the action of the movie starts – abolition may not happen. If it happens during the war, it’s not clear what country it will apply to. Lincoln is determined to get the motion through now.

The film, based on the last part of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals (‘a story of Lincoln’s political genius’, in the author’s words) is set in the autumn of 1864, with a coda running into 1865. The US Senate had passed the 13th Amendment in April 1864, but the motion still had to go before the House of Representatives, and wasn’t likely to pass there. The Amendment states that ‘neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime … shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.’ Lincoln was re-elected in November 1864, and the House accepted the Amendment on the last day of January 1865. By December 1865 it had been ratified in 27 states, but by then Lincoln was dead, assassinated in April, six days after Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. We see both the assassination and the surrender in the movie, but the bulk of its action takes place in the weeks leading up to the January vote.

There are moral dramas. Should Lincoln allow his elder son to enlist? Can he stop him? What if he dies? Would Lincoln’s wife ever forgive him? Probably not, on the evidence provided by Sally Field, who brings to the character a remarkable mixture of charm, intelligence and stubborn, almost pathological anger. But the main settings are the cabinet, where Lincoln needs to earn and keep the support of his colleagues – in the film as in Goodwin’s book, a large part of the interest here is in Lincoln’s preferring to work with rivals he can trust than with friends who might let him down – and the House, where 19th-century gentlemen with fine hair-dos and elaborate vocabularies slip all the time into gross abuse of one another. How different parliaments are in our day. In the cabinet, Lincoln’s chief supporter and guide is William Seward, his secretary of state, played with all kinds of grace and irony by David Strathairn; and in the House his opponent and ultimate ally is Thaddeus Stevens, a witty and domineering abolitionist, represented by an extraordinary black wig that has Tommy Lee Jones underneath it. Jones gets craggier with every film he is in, his face, as Woody Allen might say, a combination of Gertrude Stein’s and some local mountain. He manages to be funny and bleak without any sense of contradiction between the two effects.

And then there’s Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. The film would be worth seeing for this performance alone. All the apparatus of a Lincoln portrait is in place, as it would have to be: the beard, the stoop, the hat, the long coat. It’s a bit like putting together a kit for dressing up as Groucho Marx. The voice is pitched a little high, and some people have complained about that. It sounded good to me, though, and as you look at this face, the intelligent eyes, the kindly wrinkles of the makeup, the constant but discreet signs of someone thinking behind this mask, you feel you are looking at two quite different people. First, an Abraham Lincoln of legend, loyally reproduced, the man he is supposed to be – ‘the greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln,’ Tolstoy said, quoted by Goodwin in an epigraph – but quietly, modestly set before us. And second, a man inside this man who is far from sure that ‘Lincoln’ is anything other than a caricature, the front for a wily politician and a worried father and husband, the screen where the necessary projections can gather. I don’t mean Day-Lewis is ironic about his role, although there are one or two nice touches of that in the film. I mean Lincoln is ironic about his role, and it’s an extraordinary achievement to get this across without ruining the icon.

He needs to be ironic, because there is a third, crucial political location in the film, apart from the cabinet and the House: namely, the zone controlled by James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, the fixer, the man who will get the votes for the Amendment that are not going to come from simple democratic good will. The film pulls no punches here. Lincoln needs the votes, and he knows how to get them: through bribery, threats, offers of jobs, hints of collateral advantage, quiet conversations, much else. The challenge for the viewer is to connect the man who knows politics in this sense, and is willing to go all the way with this remorseless system, with that amused, twinkling, worried, modest man we see in the close-ups and hear in the stories he tells. Goodwin reminds us that Lincoln’s attorney general in his first term was bothered by the president’s ‘never-failing fund of anecdote’, and what we see in the film is something like anecdote as strategy, an appearance of distraction that is heading towards a secret goal. But does the strategy simply serve a political reality, or does it also hide and express the private person, the one who appears and disappears in the story itself? The movie, or rather Day-Lewis’s performance, suggests both moves, even if history actually left us only one. That’s the attraction, as Spielberg has well understood, of a thoughtful but not dismissive approach to a too familiar icon. At times in the movie Day-Lewis looks so much like an idea rather than a person that you wonder if he has been replaced for this shot by a computer-generated image. But then within minutes this figure is a person again, and manifestly a complicated one.

There are exceptions to the film’s waiting mode, and the work feels very stagy then, as if Spielberg had forgotten he was making a movie or had handed over the reins to his writer, Tony Kushner. In these moments characters play out formal, rather static scenes, little historical tableaux with words. Just before a battle Lincoln chats with two black soldiers, who quote the Gettysburg Address to him; Lincoln tells his wife’s black maid that he respects her people but will never know them. But Spielberg hasn’t forgotten his trade. He is allowing his characters to know themselves, to act themselves, as the future will see them. The audience for these scenes is not us but history. Or: we are history, at least for a minute or two.

It was curious to see the film so soon after the American election, and you have to wonder how it would have played if the result had been different. It is full of promises that we tend to think have been fulfilled, so their prehistory can feel both like a great drama and like a sort of national joke. No suspense is more enjoyable, when well orchestrated, than the suspense that concerns outcomes we already know. Yes, one day, black men will not only be free but will have the vote. And on another, later day – the film makes this point very broadly – black and white women will have the vote. One of them, a black man, for example, although perhaps not quite yet a white woman, could even become president. Whatever change Obama’s re-election brings to history, I would say its symbolic reach makes a large difference to the film’s long perspective. Two terms are a culmination. One term could have been an aberration.

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