Oliver Stone likes his ideas about U.S. history the same way Julie Brown likes her men: big and stupid. In the first couple of episodes of Stone's Showtime series about the history of America, the secret hero of the '40s and '50s was Henry Wallace, FDR's sometime Vice President and the Presidential candidate of the Progressive Party in 1948. Stone refers to Wallace as a forgotten man, which isn't entirely true: he lives on in the writing of Dwight Macdonald, who pilloried him in his magazine Politics (and the book Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth) as a limp. demagogic "corn-fed mystic," Stalinist dupe, and speaker of "Wallacese." Macdonald's hilarious, white-hot takedown of an ineffectual man who accomplished virtually nothing of lasting import has the electric charge--the catching-lightning-in-a-bottle quality--that Stone probably wants to achieve in his "political" historical movies. He usually can't, because he lacks too things that Macdonald had in spades" honesty and genuine commitment to his subjects. (Stone seems to have stumbled across Henry Wallace in his "research" and decided to glorify him as arbitrarily as he once decided that Jim Garrison was a great American.) For the kind of Hollywood fantasist that Stone is, it probably helps that Wallace never made any real mark on the history of his country; it makes it easier for him to celebrate such great qualities as his having never had any truck with your hoity-toity Washington salons and his having been a "spiritual" man (which means that, like the Stone of The Doors and Natural Born Killers, he exhibited a hard-on for the romantic myth of the Native American as mystical savage.) If he'd done anything worth doing, he'd have been that unclean thing, a successful politician.
Steven Spielberg's last movie, War Horse, was the kind of thing Henry Wallace might have been impressed by. It took a stylized theatrical adaptation of a stylized children's book and gave it a lavish, naturalistic staging, with the result that the horrors of war came down to watching bad things happen to a beautiful horse. At first, Lincoln, which Spielberg directed from a screenplay by Tony Kushner, seems to be pitched at about the same level. You see Mr. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) in the field, listening to the complaints of a hotheaded young black soldier, while an older black man standing next to him expresses embarrassment over the intemperate tone of the impatient youngblood. But then the movie settles into the halls of power and becomes all talk, and it slowly becomes monumental. Lincoln has just been re-elected, and he wants to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed, like, yesterday. He wants the slavery question settled once and for all, and it can't wait for the swearing in of the new Congress.
With the Congress he has, the votes are almost within reach--and Lincoln doesn't want to take any chances that the war might end before the measure comes to the floor, in which case people might be willing to let the thing go as part of a peace agreement. Your first sense of how strong and unusual a movie this is may come when Lincoln, alone with his cabinet, delivers a very long monologue explaining his haste. He knows that slavery is a wrong--it's not a debatable moral issue, it's a fact. And, secure in that knowledge, he has bent and maybe broken laws, taking advantage of his special situation as a wartime president, to do what had to be done to make things right. But his special circumstances are about to change, and he won't be able to impose his will on the people anymore, just to force them to recognize what is clearly right. There has to be a law--because the people, good as they are, will not accept "because it is right" as reason enough to change a way of life that has been working for them.
Lincoln is about what a good man who wants to do what's obviously right has to do in order to have his way when he can't simply tell the voters, "This is how it's going to be." Those with long memories--by which I mean, as long as four whole years, and the election results seem to indicate there are more such people out there than Mitt Romney was counting on--may flash back to the weeks when Barack Obama was lining up the votes for health care reform, and Fox News correspondents and virgin-souled liberal Obama voters alike were all aswoon, recoiling in horror at the mounting evidence that the President had sunk to employing political tactics to get the votes for something the country needed badly. That was the start of Fox News routinely referring to the rough-and-tumble criminal enterprise known as "Chicago politics," because Obama comes from Chicago and so did Al Capone, and so it seemed catchy. Lincoln himself was a resident of Illinois when he was elected President, but when he makes it clear that he'll take the votes he needs however he can get them, his Secretary of State, Henry Steward (David Straithairn), shivers and announces his intention to bring in some men "from Albany." The film's three grafter stooges--John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and James Spader, whose performance is so perfectly, unglamorously skeevy that at first, I thought he was Rob Schneider--are the movie's Greek chorus, completely disreputable yet hard-working and loyal to their noble cause.
It would be hard to overstate how smart Spielberg was to cast Day-Lewis as Lincoln--not just because he looks the part and can act it (which he does, superbly), but because, as George Clooney admitted in a panel of Oscar nominees a few years ago, even other actors tend to be a little in awe of Day-Lewis. As an actor, he fleshes Lincoln out and grounds him, so that he seems human, but as a personality, he stands apart from the rest of the world, so he effortlessly conveys the distance between Lincoln and mere mortals of his own time. The hero audiences may better be able to relate to is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a figure who, whether by his own name or under aliases (as in The Birth of a Nation), has been used as a villain in earlier Civil War dramas, especially those of the "pity the poor South, treated so shabbily by cruel Yankee conquerers during Reconstruction" variety. Stevens shares Lincoln's certain knowledge that slavery is evil, but he has no shyness about not just denouncing it from the rooftops but insulting the brains and morality of anyone who disagrees with him. His devotion to the truth, and his Tommy Lee Jones-like manner of expressing it, has made him a lighting rod for anyone trying to depict abolitionists as acid-tongued elitists, as well as extremist nuts who think black people are just as good as white people. The movie's big suspense scene, in what may be a first for a Hollywood political drama, comes when Stevens, for political reasons, has to force himself to heroically lie and insist that he does not believe in racial equality.
Speilberg has made some terrific movies that didn't find an audience (like 1941) or that were criticized for being too violent or scary (like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), and he has duly apologized for these missteps and accepted the higher wisdom of the mass audience's judgment. You don't expect him to make a movie that basically argues that democracy depends on a few intellectually and morally superior people outwitting and outplaying their opponents, in order to move society forward in ways that most people don't feel ready to embrace yet. But he is living in our world; he did take notice of the rise of the Tea Party, and anything he missed, I'm sure Tony Kushner could brief him on. Stevens, the most outspoken advanced thinker in the movie, reminds his allies that no matter what is right or how much good is in their hearts, the mass of white people look at all those black people on the verge of being liberated and just see a threat, people coming to crowd in and demand a share of their goodies. The faces of the average Americans in Lincoln belong to a white, middle-class couple who have come to Washington to show their support for the amendment. They want it to pass because Mr. Lincoln says that if it does, the war will stop. But when pressed, they admit that, if the war stops tomorrow without the amendment, they would rather the slaves aren't freed, because they don't want some niggers jumping their fences and stealing chickens from their backyard. They don't say jumping the borders and trying to steal their jobs, because the thought of a non-white man taking a white man's job is inconceivable to them, which is one way to measure how far we've all come.