Film Review: Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner is based on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns, and has another acting tour de force by Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th US president. Kushner’s political thriller, set in the White House and Congress in Washington DC in January 1865, tells of Lincoln’s struggle to have the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) to the US constitution passed in Congress before the defeat of the Confederate slave states in the Civil War. Its back room deals, politics and legalities are reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.

Lincoln was a moderate, pragmatic abolitionist, he had written to Horace Greeley in 1862 of ‘my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free,’ and he is generally featured as the stern bearded president portrayed on the five-dollar bill and the imposing Lincoln Memorial. Day-Lewis gives Lincoln a soft-spoken, conversational tone and portrays him as a flesh and blood president who is politically cunning, charming, a loving husband and devoted father, an intellectual but also the folksy ‘prairie lawyer’ from Illinois. Marx believed Lincoln represented the idea that ‘ordinary people of good will can accomplish feats which only heroes could accomplish in the old world.’ Sally Field is outstanding as Mary Todd Lincoln especially in a heart bursting scene with Day-Lewis about the bereavement for their dead son.

Tommy Lee Jones gives a scene-stealing performance as Republican Party radical congressman Thaddeus Stevens who could be the ‘hero’ of the film. This contrasts with how he was portrayed in DW Griffith’s 1915 paean to the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation, where Stevens is denounced as a ‘race traitor.’ The American Civil War which left 800,000 dead was about slavery and Marx identified this in 1861 when he wrote ‘the South already declared that the continuance of slavery was no longer compatible with the continuance of the Union.’ Lincoln needed the help of radicals like Stevens to pass the 13th Amendment . This would ‘legalise’ and expand the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 which was dependent on Union military victory, and had stated ‘that all persons held as slaves’ within the Confederate States ‘are, and henceforward shall be free.’

Lincoln is probably Spielberg’s best film, lacking his usual sentimentality and is the third of his films looking at the African-American experience, the others being the 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and the 1997 story of the slave ship revolt Amistad. Lincoln directed by Spike Lee would be interesting. Lincoln as a period film is comparable to the 1993 The Age of Innocence by Martin Scorsese which portrayed the ‘haute bourgeoisie’ of 1870’s New York City.

Lincoln played by Day-Lewis portrays ‘the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world’ which is how the International Working Men’s Association (drafted by Marx) wrote to Lincoln in 1865.

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