Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn
Plot: As the American Civil War rages on, President Abraham Lincoln has his own political battle in trying to pass the Amendment that would abolish slavery.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ career is characterised by his insistence on preparing very thoroughly for each of his roles, making him arguably the best known method actors of his generation. This has resulted in his filmography being sparse compared to most actors but in return, Day-Lewis is almost always tipped for Oscar success. Having now completed a hat-trick of Academy Awards for Best Actor for roles in My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood and now Lincoln, Day-Lewis had little to go on to re-create the voice and mannerisms of Abraham Lincoln – his latest role therefore represents the toughest real-life character he’s had to bring to life yet, such is Lincoln’s fame around the world.
In January 1865, the United States of America has been ripped apart by the savage Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis) tries to obtain passage for the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in the House of Representatives, which would abolish slavery in the country. Lincoln, believing that the war will end within a month, is concerned that his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation (proclaiming all those enslaved in Confederate territory to be forever free) will be discarded and that slaves who may already have been freed will be enslaved once more. The Radical Republicans fear that the Amendment will be defeated as a delaying tactic with the support of republicans in the border states not having been secured, as they feel the priority is to end the war. Even if all of the Republicans are on board, there still needs to be the support of several Democratic congressmen for the Thirteenth Amendment to be passed.
With many Democrats becoming lame ducks after losing their bids for re-election in the autumn of 1864, a few of Lincoln’s aides urge the President to wait until the Republican-filled Congress returns, hopefully getting the Amendment through with ease. Lincoln himself is adamant that the Amendment must be in place and the issue of slavery resolved before the end of the war and the southern states welcomed back to the Union. Lincoln has to rely on the support of the Republican Party founder Frances Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), whose influence can provide the backing of the members of the western and border state conservative Republican faction. Meanwhile, President Lincoln has to deal with problems much closer to home, when his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pleads with his father to let him join the army, something which he forbids, setting himself on a difficult course with both his family and the politicians he needs to back him.
The trailer for Lincoln has all the classic hallmarks of an American political film. Sweeping, majestic cutting, with Lincoln’s quotes and clips of him banging the table and slow-motion war scenes suggest that most of the plot will consist of high drama mixed in with various updates from the Civil War battlefield. In reality, this is very much a slow-burner – much of the storyline is not really aimed at discovering the personal side of Abraham Lincoln and is mainly made up of smoke-filled rooms where intricate and detailed negotiations are taking place, which will determined the future of the United States. Americans will have had a head start on the rest of us who will most likely not have covered the subject extensively at school – even though there is a short history lesson to set the scene, it would be advisable to read up on the background to the American Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment to see how it all fits together. Having said that, the enormous attention to detail that Steven Spielberg has evidently ensured to recreate 1865 is clear to see in every single scene. The sets, costumes and dialogue feel very authentic indeed, even if you might not have a clue about how everyone should sound or look for the period in history.
Daniel Day-Lewis, portraying one of the most famous American Presidents never to have been filmed or whose speech recorded, chooses to give Lincoln a weak and feeble voice, when many historians believe it to have been a deep, booming one. Whether this was a personal choice or influenced by his esteemed director is not too much of a concern – his appearance however is frighteningly accurate. Day-Lewis turns in another fantastic performance – the authenticity of his portrayal is helped in no small part to the script and Spielberg’s direction, both of which are at an extremely high standard. Tommy Lee Jones is the standout support, playing Thaddeus Stevens with his usual hag dog, toothy grin expression and a comedy wig to boot. Jones is arguably one of the best supporting actors around and he doesn’t disappoint. Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, who it is rumoured to have suffered from bipolar disorder, has good form for playing such characters, such as Maggie Wyczenski in ER and she provides the family-based angst based around their son’s decision to join the army. In stark contrast to Day-Lewis’ method acting, one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood today, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, proves his range with an albeit fleeting performance as said son Robert Lincoln.
Unless you have an unquenchable thirst for American history, you will probably have to be in the right mood to watch Lincoln. Such is the nature of political dramas, especially historical ones, that to know at least a little of the lead up to the events being portrayed is required to aid the entertainment factor. Daniel Day-Lewis is superb however and, despite the lack of an assassination scene, the film is rounded off rather well and will probably encourage further reading on the subject.