As critics and commentators discuss Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," now playing in wide release, they typically mention two of Spielberg's other historical dramas: "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan." Understandable, but lacking. "Amistad" is the one to bring up.
Spielberg's 1997 drama about the 1839 slave rebellion on the ship La Amistad really focuses on the legal arguments, ultimately made in the U.S. Supreme Court by John Quincy Adams, to free the rebellious slaves and recognize natural equality. As Adams said: "Give us the courage to do what is right. And if it means civil war, then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution."
"Lincoln," starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president, is another cinematic chapter in America grappling with its original sin.
Here as in "Amistad," Spielberg chooses the legislative angle to the story. But don't mistake legislation for boredom. We know by now that Spielberg doesn't do boredom, not even when covering an amendment.
Of course, the amendment in question is the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution – the one that outlaws slavery. "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction," reads the amendment, passed by Congress Jan. 31, 1865.
Scriptwriter Tony Kushner worked for years with Spielberg to narrow down the Lincoln story.
They ultimately arrived at a Lincoln story, says Kushner: the one about an Illinois lawyer who became president. And tried to delay a civil war's end. Just long enough to get votes to amend a founding document to abolish slavery.
I really like that story. That is, incidentally, a line Lincoln himself utters after telling another of his yarns – something he does frequently.
Often the stories are rough around the edges, like the man himself. Unruly hair, sinewy body, awkward gait. But the stories, like the man, fit the times.
One watches the film and ponders the etches on Lincoln's face like he must have pondered his circumstances: a lot is never enough. These facts are testaments to the film's acting, hair and make-up and the country's history. Spielberg, of course, puts them together again.
Day-Lewis is indeed remarkable, but the supporting cast – especially Tommy Lee Jones as fierce abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens – also delivers.
Viewers needn't know all the historical players by name to follow nevertheless the perspectives and interests they represent. In that sense, politics hasn't changed a lick.
(It's here that I'm reminded of the 2007 film "Amazing Grace," about William Wilberforce's effort to abolish slavery in the British Empire. At the risk of sounding like an Amazon.com algorithm, "If you like 'Lincoln,' you might also like 'Amazing Grace.'")
"Lincoln" explores not only the lengths to which Lincoln goes to secure votes in the House of Representatives for the amendment; it also delves here and there into the ways our fight for justice is tempered or enhanced.
Witness the brief heart-to-heart between Lincoln and Stevens. Or the "resourcefulness" of a group tasked by Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to make sure several congressmen vote their way.
Here, Lincoln is a man who can and will save the Union and outlaw slavery by playing games with words. In that regard, he wasn't fit just for his time, but perhaps for all time as a politician.
But Lincoln was no mere politician, as important as that may have been. He was an enigma at the helm of our state ship, looking for shore amid a dense fog.
Spielberg's "Lincoln," now too, is one for the ages.
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner (based in part on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin)
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis: Abraham Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones: Thaddeus Stevens; Sally Field: Mary Todd Lincoln; David Strathairn: William Seward; Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Robert Lincoln; James Spader: W.N. Bilbo; Hal Holbrook: Preston Blair; Bruce McGill: Edwin Stanton.