Star Rating: 4/5
- Steven Spielberg – Saving Private Ryan, War Horse, Indiana Jones I-V
- Daniel Day-Lewis – Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood, Nine
- Sally Field – Mrs Doubtfire, ER, The Amazing Spider-Man I & II
- Joseph Gordon-Levitt – The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Sin City II
- Tommy Lee Jones – No Country For Old Men, Captain America: The First Avenger, Emperor
- Jackie Earle Haley – Watchmen, Shutter Island, Robocop
- David Strathairn – LA Confidential, The Whistleblower, The Bourne Ultimatum & Legacy
- James Spader – Boston Legal, The Office, By Virtue Fall
- John Williams – Star Wars I-VI, War Horse, Indiana Jones I-V
All democratically-elected state leaders, whether they are presidents or prime ministers, have an ambition for reaching their respective position. For some, it is about power and/or aggrandisement; for others, it is about putting their names down in the history books. But for an exceptional few, it is about being uniquely in the right place at the right time and enabling their ideologies and actions to make them stand out from among their peers. President Abraham Lincoln (1860-65) belongs to the last category, and Steven Spielberg’s admirable biopic, Lincoln, illustrates why this is the case.
Lincoln revolves round events in America during January 1865. At the time, no-one was certain as to how long the Civil War (1861- April 1865) would continue. The Unionists, led by President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the armies of the north, are in a strong position. But the rebel Confederacy, led by Jefferson Davis and the armies of the south, are not about to surrender either.
The latter’s resolve is further stiffened upon hearing that, despite the war raging on, President Lincoln intends to push through Congress the highly contentious Thirteenth Amendment (the abolition of slavery) before the legislature ends its session at the beginning of February. The Confederacy’s hatred of black people and their slavery-based economy cannot allow for it. But will their attempts to block the proposed amendment succeed?
Lincoln’s storyline is intelligent; yet, slightly lacking in depth and, at 150 minutes, drawn out. Despite being potentially confusing for someone who has no knowledge of the era, the political wranglings going on behind the scenes throughout the film are great to watch because they are amusing and appear realistic. They also indicate that there was more than an element of corruption in American politics in the 1860s. (Then again, does The Ides of March show us that American politics is significantly different today?)
Moreover, the debates on slavery and freedom throughout Lincoln are intellectually stimulating. In the present era, it defies belief to learn that President Lincoln was a ‘radical,’ even among his key allies, for wanting the abolition of slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment was a measure that America (apparently) wasn’t yet ready for in 1865 (almost sixty years after Britain and France had abolished the Slave Trade, and four years after Tsar Alexander II had passed the emancipation of serfdom in Russia).
However, one only has to read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to realise that Lincoln fails to illustrate the inherent racism towards black people that existed even among abolitionists. Similarly, the movie says nothing of the four Union states that permitted slavery, which is strange as those four states could have been portrayed as a thorn in President Lincoln’s side.
Furthermore, the film only deals seriously with two issues: the amendment and the Civil War. While they understandably dominated Lincoln’s presidency, surely there were other matters for the president to consider, such as the annual budget and foreign relations? None of these are ever mentioned, which has the indirect effect of making President Lincoln appear almost two-dimensional.
But to say that the ex-president was anything less than a highly-complex and gifted man serves to undermine him, and Daniel Day-Lewis exemplifies this with a performance of remarkable consistency. He captures the former president’s quirkiness, social awkwardness and witty humour fantastically, as well as his indefatigable zeal and reason for his ideals.
Day-Lewis undoubtedly dominates Lincoln, but that does not mean that the supporting cast should be ignored. With the exception of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is average at best and whose role, as the ex-president’s son, Robert Lincoln, could easily have been shelved, Sally Field as the ex-president’s worrisome and frenzied wife, Mary Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones as the savvy Republican Congressman, Thaddeus Stevens; David Strathairn as the cautious Secretary of State, William Seward; Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens, the racist Vice-President of the rebel Confederacy; and even James Spader, as the underhand Mr. Bilbo (no, not Baggins) are all superb.
Equally good are the costume and make-up designs, which truly bring the 1860s to life. Likewise, John Williams should be praised for writing a soundtrack that does not sound remotely like Star Wars, Home Alone or Indiana Jones. Indeed, Williams’ score here is more subtle in nature. It adds a touching element to Lincoln that makes the movie that bit more poignant when it matters most.
Over-all, Lincoln is a venerable film with clever dialogue, a beautiful set and enchanting acting. The movie might be a little long and simplifies some of the historical issues, but this should not negate that President Lincoln was one of the rare few leaders who have managed, almost single-handedly, to change the course of history. He understood the uniqueness of his epoch and acted upon his conscience, despite knowing the storm it would cause (as well as unknowingly making him pay the ultimate price for it). Lincoln demonstrates all of this wonderfully and shows us why President Abraham Lincoln is rightly regarded as the archetypal president that so many of his successors have tried (and often failed) to emulate.