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If you've seen the trailer for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, you no doubt noticed that the film it was selling looked like an eerily perfect facsimile of exactly what one's mind immediately conjures at the notion of America's Most Beloved Filmmaker taking on America's Most Beloved President. Soaring John Williams music, long wide shots of people staring up at something angelic apparently just above the audience's head, and Very Serious Actors making Very Serious Declarations. Daniel Day Lewis - of late referred to as cinema's "Greatest Living Actor" - plays an Abraham Lincoln cast in the hagiographic mold most familiar to casual observers of American History: a demigod of goodness and honesty, aglow with the power that radiated from what we now recognize as his greatest accomplishment in the ending of slavery.
What a surprise, then, to discover that apart from a handful of big moments (which, realistically, the audience would not have forgiven being presented in any other way), Lincoln is very much the opposite of its own marketing. Instead of a sweeping Old Hollywood biopic, it's a fast moving, tightly-focused piece set almost exclusively around the political machinations of passing the 13th Amendment. Lewis' Honest Abe plays the role of wizened sage as a public figure but reveals himself as a self-amused, shrewdly confident operator behind the scenes and a complex, haunted human being behind closed doors. And far from the maudlin, starry-eyed sentimentality that drowned out much of Amistad, the political machinations that form the meat of Lincoln play out more often as snappy, Mamet-esque conversational battles and even screwball comedy on occasion.
But what's really surprising (and, for me, particularly thrilling) is that it ultimately reveals itself as something like a radical political film. Not quite a screed, granted, but wholly unexpected all the same. Lincoln, despite presiding over a brutal Civil War, is typically presented in film as the archetypal Great Man whose sainted goodness is agreed upon by all. Spielberg, while undeniably super-talented as a cinematic artist, built much of his substantial box office clout on his ability to draw large and diverse audiences into a shared emotional embrace.
Spielberg and Lincoln. It's the unlikeliest possible coupling one could think of when imagining the making of an incendiary political piece, but here we are. In its own way, Lincoln could well be the most radical American political drama to hit theaters in years. Where other movies about the political process decry cynicism and hold up simplistic moralism as the ultimate ideal, Lincoln dives down into the amoral muck of bare knuckle politics. The film posits backroom deals, double crosses, fine print shenanigans, rule bending and outright law flouting as the real tools of transformational social upheaval, and holds up the "dirty-tricksters" and do anything, say anything political operators as the real heroes of American progress - their corruption made moot by the rightness of their cause. In the spirit of 2012's other movie about the 16th President, a fitting fuller title for Spielberg's opus could easily have been Abraham Lincoln: Machiavellian Superhero.
Our setting is late 1864. Lincoln has won a decisive re-election to the Presidency, his Republican party has won a majority in Congress and the Civil War has ceased to be a question of who will win and become one of when will the South give up. When the New Year arrives and the newly-elected Republican Congressmen take their seats, Lincoln will have near absolute power to pass his legislative agenda, chiefly the 13th Amendment abolishing all slavery in the United States, but the President doesn't want to wait that long.