Film Review – LINCOLN
Venue: Cine 4, Ster- Kinekor
Director: Stephen Spielburg
Screenplay: Tony Kushner
Players: Daniel Day Lewis; Sally Field; David Stathearn; Joseph Gordon Lewitt; James Spader; Hal Holbrook; Tommy Lee Jones
Genre: historical drama
Abraham Lincoln is probably the most iconic political figure in American history and Daniel Day Lewis does achieve a multi-faceted character in his interpretation of this American President, best known for the abolition of slavery.
The film, though, deals with a very small part of his political career: his passionate devotion to passing the Thirteenth Amendment, a Bill which effectively ended slavery in America, prior to the conclusion of the Civil War and the re-unification of the northern and southern states. His determination to effect the passing of the Bill in the face of overpowering odds and a divided Republican party does illustrate certain aspects of his character: a razor-sharp intelligence honed by a legal background and experience; a misleadingly mild manner and quirky sense of humour which veils his iron will; and although he seems visionary rather than pragmatic, he does prove to be ruthlessly pragmatic and more than willing to obfuscate when necessary.
As with other films of the period, the abiding setting is gloomy and dark with verbose interchanges in dingy, stuffy, overcrowded interiors, filled with horse-hair-stuffed furniture and fussy ornaments. while brocade curtaining does a brave job of shutting out natural light. Most of the characters are white-haired gentlemen with faces sprouting healthy sideburns, or elegant goatees and handlebar moustaches.
Based upon a book, the film strives to be historically accurate and much of the weighty dialogue in polysyllabic English ( as testament to the level of education of the superior classes of the time) is devoted to explanations of the various arguments and attitudes of the political movers and shakers in 1865, four years into the Civil War.
The date at the commencement of the action is 1 January 1865 and most of the action covers the month of January and the ruses and strategies by Lincoln and his cronies to convert a 60 plus opposition to his Amendment to a two-thirds majority to carry his Bill. Crippled by a divided Republican party Lincoln pursues Democrats with messianic fervour, not sullying his own reputation with accusations of ‘buying’ votes, but employing a team of three dubious characters led by W.H. Bilbo (a portly James Spader) none of whom exhibit any qualms about the persuasive promises for patronage and position in exchange for supporting the Bill to Democrats in imminent danger of unemployment. It is only in the closing hours prior to the vote in the House of Representatives that Lincoln himself visits the president clandestinely, using any argument, either emotive or rational, which is best suited to change attitude.
Lewis is supported by a strong cast. Molly Lincoln (Field) is a bitter, grieving woman caught up in a syndrome of blaming her husband. She is depicted as her husband’s intellectual equal, and sits in the House with her maid daily to keep abreast of the avid and sometimes acrimonious debate. She understands his motives, logic, and argument, although she cannot adopt parity of reason: her basis for argument is womanly, based upon hatred of the war which took one of their sons.
The film depicts Lincoln as a master of anecdote: he has a simple homily for every argument based upon his own experiences, laced with quirky humour, which simplifies the situation for those who are less intellectually agile. His hesitancy of manner belies his mastery of political strategy but he demonstrates anger with Cabinet members who are sufficiently brave enough to oppose him. When Molly whines about the state of her health, owing to a carriage accident, which she is convinced is an assassination attempt upon her husband, Lincoln offers no remorse or guilt. In fact, he refrains from any comment whatsoever.
History has made Lincoln an icon; the film portrays a man entirely admirable but not always likeable. The heavy dialogue, for those who are sufficiently focussed to follow it assiduously, emphasises that the Amendment and the conclusion to the Civil War are irretrievably linked. Many are prepared to vote affirmative simply in the hope that the success of the Bill will trigger an ending to the war. Mr and Mrs Jolly, who come to see Lincoln to protest illegal tenancy of a toll booth, are harnessed politically to serve Lincoln’s cause. Lincoln proves a brilliant political opportunist, willing to veer close to the wind, legally and politically, to bend the citizens’ will to his own.