Fearing that the amendment will be perceived as unduly partisan (and thus more vulnerable to future assaults) if enacted in a lopsided vote and that Northern voters will lose their tenuous support for Abolition if the war itself ends prematurely, Lincoln sets his sights on a bold gamble. The Congressional Democrats rendered "lame ducks" (read: politicians in the period between losing an election and officially departing the office) by the wave of Republican victories that accompanied Honest Abe's election might be led to cast what would previously have been career-ending votes for abolition on their way out, if only they could be persuaded.
So, yes. Lincoln is essentially a movie about subverting the democratic process in the name of positive reform. The good guys are the team of shady arm-twisters and glad-handers whom Lincoln dispatches to purchase enough "yes" votes to pass his radical, unpopular (at the time) reform while he and his allies dig in behind the scenes to run a complex shell game bent on keeping a collapsing Confederate enemy in the dark as to the amendment until it's too late for them to do anything about it.
There hasn't been a film that found so much humor and even heroism in acts of subterfuge and misdirection since Ocean's Eleven, and in a way that's an appropriate comparison. Lincoln could easily be viewed as a caper movie in which Abe and company more or less steal slavery from the South through a massive, elaborate con. For the American political history genre, which typically casts honest-to-a-fault paragons as the only possible heroes and cynical backroom deal-making as poison in the national bloodstream, this is about as far afield as you get. Even Daniel Day Lewis' Lincoln is strikingly different from the norm, less a towering soothsayer than a deceptively modest Lawyer In Chief who delights in answering questions with stories and tying his opponents up in verbal knots. The performance, like the film, is as far removed from "Oscar Bait" as it can be while still allowing Lewis the chance to turn "I am the President of The United States ... clothed in immense power!" into this year's thundering macho war cry line.
Nearly every scene involving the machinery of passing the Amendment is framed in terms of lionizing pragmatic political jujitsu over wide-eyed truth telling. The film's key secondary story involves Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the so-called "Radical Republicans" and for years the Senate's most vocal advocate not only for the end of slavery but also for views on the equality of races that placed him nearly a century ahead of most other men of his time. He's the "happy warrior" rascal of the film, the man with the guts to be as radical in public as Lincoln is in private, but even his arc is effectively about the heroism of dishonesty in the service of "getting things done." To mollify skittish fellow Republicans, Stevens is asked to state that he does not intend abolition as a springboard to full rights and citizenship for slaves (a lie, to say nothing of a denial of his entire career as an activist) on the floor of the Senate. What he does, and his subsequent explanation of why, are scenes that could easily win Jones a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Lincoln's content and angle are surprising, but its quality is not - incendiary political zeal and all, it's exactly the kind of polished, assured filmmaking we've come to expect from Spielberg at this stage of his career. It's likely that audiences, particularly in the U.S., are a little tired of all things political after this year, but this is one you don't want to miss ... even if (maybe especially if) you think it might really tick you off.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.