Lincoln is, of course, one of this awards season’s biggest contenders, a two and a half hour biopic about one of America’s most beloved presidents directed by Steven Spielberg and lead by Daniel Day-Lewis. It is one of those films that, on the surface, would seem to be all about the awards. But is this the only thing that Lincoln is interested in?
Lincoln follows the last few months of the American president’s life in 1865 as he fights to get the Thirteenth Amendment, which will outlaw slavery, through Congress by the most politically convenient way possible. He risks splitting his party in two, losing to the Democrats and extending the Civil War. There is also domestic strife from his mentally scarred wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who insists on fighting in the war. The film’s primary focus is on Lincoln’s determination and his political manipulation.
Though the film begins with a battle sequence, one that is both surprisingly horrible and surprisingly restrained, there is very little seen of the war in the rest of the film. Lincoln is primarily a chamber piece, largely made up of conversations exploring the political manoeuvres necessary to bring about the Thirteenth Amendment. The film works as a tribute to democracy in that it shows it in progress and, ultimately, working. However, the film might also be seen as a reminder that it is difficult and time-consuming, possibly one aimed at those who are currently disappointed at Obama’s progress. Lincoln is best as a political film, showing the ways in which dedicated and savvy politicians can get their way, and it is often riveting. Staunch abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) is one of the most interesting characters, a radical who faces the dilemma of holding his tongue in order to make the Amendment more attractive to his political rivals. The film addresses the difficulties in such compromises and yet makes a convincing case for the greater good.
The film has been criticized justifiably for its lack of black faces, especially since there were outspoken and influential black abolitionists at the time. Apart from the film’s opening, in which Lincoln interviews and is impressed by two black soldiers, there is never a black character who wouldn’t be easily described as passive. In this regard, the film could have been worse and Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner seem to be aware of some of the pitfalls, since they do not conclude the film with a sea of black people thanking Lincoln for sorting out slavery. After all, Lincoln is primarily about democracy and Abraham Lincoln himself, it is not called Slavery or, even, The Amendment. It is not the definitive film on either of these two subjects, just as Schindler’s List is not necessarily a film about the Holocaust and Saving Private Ryan a film about World War II – I would argue that, in both cases, they are films in which Spielberg, being in the main an optimistic filmmaker, searches for the good in humanity even in its worst atrocities.
Daniel Day-Lewis is very good as Lincoln. Though his performance slightly hampered by the need to imitate the popular conception of the sixteenth president, Day-Lewis brings out the man’s humanity and humour perfectly. Some of the film’s best moments are when the film slows down to accommodate Lincoln’s roundabout way of getting to the point, telling stories which may or may not turn out to have a point but yet are always entertaining. His colleagues are often exasperated by his ramblings, but they are often where the heart of the film lies, especially since Lincoln’s chatter is precisely what brings others, and himself, around to a particular opinion. Lincoln’s determination once his mind is made up is also well brought out and his suddenly explosive anger is effective because it is so rarely seen.
Though the film does inevitably fall to deifying Lincoln, it is surprising how human it allows Lincoln to remain for the majority of the film. Spielberg can be mawkish and there is certainly at least one terrible moment in which William Slade (Stephen Henderson) watches Lincoln heroically walking off to Ford’s Theatre as if they both know that he must leave this world and march off into history. Or something. Most of the time, however, Spielberg avoids such triteness, instead delivering a believable biopic of Lincoln and an endlessly watchable account of democracy in action. With a very good script, which loves an old 19th century American turn of phrase as much as Tommy Lee Jones loves saying them, and a down to earth treatment coupled with a great central performance, Lincoln is surprisingly good.