Lincoln (PG)

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner, John Logan and Doris Kearns Goodwin (screenplay)
On general release from 1st February 2013

Reviewed by Joe Coventry

With the most pernicious form of society as the backdrop for your film it better be good, and Spielberg tackles the subject head on with this biopic of Abraham Lincoln.

Don’t expect a blockbuster though. At 150 minutes this could be a tedious experience. However Daniel Day-Lewis is able to pull it off with a tour de force performance as the president who gets the 13th Amendment onto the statute book of the United States of America.

In 1865 the United States was anything but united. The 16th President was on course for re-election to a second term amidst a raging civil war between the Unionists of the north and the Confederate south – thirteen states having declared their autonomy.

The ending of slavery is at the heart of this film and Lincoln has his own “I have a dream” vision. In this he realises he must end not only the civil war but overcome Democratic opposition to his attempt to change the course of history. How times change.

There is not much fighting but what there is, is bloody. The opening scene is symbolic and prescient. A black soldier in blue is seen taking the life of a grey coated white soldier. The Unionists have allowed black Americans to fight under their colours and they are shown getting down to business with gusto in the Battle of Jenkins' Ferry in Arkansas.

The film’s developing dialogue is structured on several levels. Lincoln is shown as family man, astute politician, philosophical magus and quietly-spoken intellectual. His wife Mary (played excellently, if at times a little too melodramatically by Sally Field) is his sounding board. Early on she senses what he is attempting to do but she has her own fish to fry. Having lost one son to the war she is hell bent on not losing her youngest, the contemplation of which the president must also internalise along with his pressing matters of State.

How then to end the War and pass the Amendment?

The proposal has already failed the test once in the House of Representatives and its cockpit of a debating chamber shows just how reprehensible human nature can be – vitriol, bile, self righteous bombast and evasion are all here, as is the occasional sensible voice. Sound familiar?

Step forward Thaddeus Steven (Tommy Lee Jones) - maverick and pugnacious House member who will prove integral to getting the Amendment passed. As is arch conservative Republican Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) whose main priority is a lasting peace and his forthright Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn). Crucially the latter is not always confided in.

Politics requires lots of palm oil and it is liberally used behind the scenes here. To win over insurmountable odds, a specialist team of fixers is put to work on potential waverers to induce them to the cause. Cavalier and carefree and operating in total secrecy, they add some humour to the heavyweight intrigue. Lincoln calls in on them unannounced as they are playing cards to see how things are going. “What the fuck?” one of them blurts out. What indeed.

A covert meeting has been set up with the scary leaders of the Southern cause, ostensibly to bring hostilities to an end – its real purpose is to give time for a vote on abolition. Instructing General Grant to stick to his task and his high command to ensure that the Southern delegation is delayed, come the 31st of January 1865 the poker-faced President goes “all in”. His assassination a few months later is a tragic coda to what has gone before.

Great oratorical skills from the main players, Day-Lewis should be a shoo-in at the Oscars. Strangely John Williams’ score is not that memorable. But this is no Jaws. It is however a jaw-dropping outing for Spielberg who too can expect further awards. The film is rated PG so take your kids.

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