When I visited Washington a few years ago I was surprised to find the Civil War history fascinating. I’d gone to the city for its political heritage and instead found myself engrossed in the country’s bloodiest war. In the movie Lincoln, Steven Spielberg has combined both politics and warfare.
The film is set in the final months of Lincoln’s presidency as he struggles to outlaw slavery through legislative means, when many of his political allies would be happy simply to see the end of the war. Lincoln is more far-sighted; he wants to end the war, restore the union and close the door to any possibility that the southern states could retain or regain the right to keep slaves.
I found it a surprisingly cerebral film for Spielberg – it’s more West Wing than Saving Private Ryan, despite the brutal hand to hand fighting shown in the opening minutes, and it focuses on the negotiations and machinations the President and his agents go through to ensure the amendment to the Constitution is passed. (I was surprised to learn Lincoln was a Republican given the far right conservatism of the party now.)
While this is an excellent film, every now and then the sense of period slips and a modern sensibility is apparent. Some of the African American characters seem far too articulate and educated for an oppressed people, and I wonder whether a white man who hates slaves would really have described himself as “a prejudiced man” in that era. Similarly the scene in which Lincoln pounds the table and proclaims “I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power!” jars on me every time I see the trailer. The President may have immense power in 2013, but not in 1865 after years of Civil War.
Quibbles aside, the film belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role; he is simply superb. His Lincoln is ungainly, quirky, prone to making a point through sometimes annoying anecdotes, but also far more politically astute and calculating than those around him, and than his saintly image suggests. Others performances are also excellent, though I don’t think Sally Fields’ Oscar nominated turn as Mary Lincoln adds much to the storyline. This is an intricate and interesting tale, very well told – four stars.