Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis
Tommy Lee Jones
Running time : 150 minutes
Based on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, 'Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln'.
Time Magazine devoted a cover to Daniel Day Lewis' craggy profile as Lincoln. Critics have written hundreds of words of praise for every aspect of the film. At the time of writing this article, nominations for every award imaginable have been received. So all that remained after digesting this panegyric was a personal assessment. And quite simply, in Back Chat's opinion, this is a film at which to wonder. Wonder at the mastery of Daniel Day Lewis' portrayal of Lincoln. Wonder at the superb performances of supporting actors and wonder at cinematography and screenplay that are beautifully and miraculously wedded.
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The film opens with brutal scenes of battle and muddy hand to hand combat. The American Civil War which raged from 1861 to 1865 is nearing an end. This war, the bloodiest in American history, was fought between the "Union" or the 'North' and several Southern states that formed the 'Confederacy' or the 'South'. The central issue of the war was slavery, much favoured by the South. In their opinion a whole way of life was at risk.
From there flows the story of mid-19th century America. America is not yet a big, shiny place. The atmosphere of a smaller, simpler world is enhanced by remarkable cinematography that colours a palette a brown chiaroscuro, almost sepia at times. Abraham Lincoln is being cruelly tested. He is struggling to have the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution passed into law which would formally abolish slavery in the country. This would ratify his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
He expects the war to end within the month. Yet, as deeply as he is affected by the bloodletting, he is horrified at the thought that the war might end before the 13th Amendment is passed and slavery abolished. Lincoln had just won re-election. His Republican Party has a majority in the Congress, but is not yet seated. Certain radical Republicans wish to delay the passing of the Amendment. They fear that the Amendment would not be passed until they are seated and have garnered the necessary two thirds majority.
Lincoln needs the support of the Republic Party founder Francis Preston Blair. The influence of Blair, the eminence grise of the Republican Party, would ensure the support of the conservative Republican faction in backing the Amendment. However, Blair, played by Hal Holbrook, favours an urgent meeting between the Union and the Confederacy to arrange a peace. He sees this as the more pressing issue. But leader of the Radical Republicans and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Thaddeus Stevens , played with brooding intensity by Tommy Lee Jones, viciously opposes such a step, fearing that the emancipation process would be high-jacked. Stevens, an ardent abolitionist, has a fascinating secret that is only revealed to us at the end of the film.
Lincoln instructs his Secretary of State and wartime aide, William Seward, played by David Strathairn, to go about securing the necessary Democratic votes required to pass the Amendment. He and three colourful characters, played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes, approach soon to be out of work Democrats and offer them federal jobs in return for their votes for the Amendment. Yup, politics as usual!
The debates on the floor of the House are savage. Words are wielded like weapons of war and one watches in fascination as civilized men reduce the venerable House into another bloody battlefield. All the while the tension is building as the day of the vote draws nearer.
Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln has a reedy voice. This has been much discussed as no recordings of Lincoln's voice exist. Day-Lewis arrived at the conclusion that his voice should have this high, tinny quality from the material he researched in preparation for the part. His gentle folksy delivery using the idioms of the day to highlight his points of argument is in strong contrast to the loud huff and puff of his opponents. But he is ruthlessly clear thinking and while he listens almost angelically to long tirades against himself and his policies, he remains in control. The vote in the House is a masterpiece of suspense and as suspenseful as any modern political thriller.
Other strands of Lincoln's life are woven into the tapestry of the film. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, portrayed so beautifully by Sally Field, is a complex and melancholy woman. Ten years his junior, she blames Lincoln for the death of their eldest son Willie on the battlefield. She is terrified that he will send the next eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, to a similar fate. The tension between them is sometimes raw and hurtful, but she remains a faithful supporter and is often seen in the visitors’ gallery in the House. While Lincoln has a loving indulgent relationship with his youngest son, Tad, his interaction with his elder son, Robert, is troubled. Robert is furious that his parents will not allow him to go and fight.
After the passing of the Amendment, the film moves forward two months showing Lincoln's visit to Petersburg, Virginia, where he speaks briefly to General Grant. Grant then receives General Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. On to the night of the 14th April 1865, Lincoln is seen in a late night meeting with his cabinet discussing the enfranchisement of blacks. He is reminded that Mrs Lincoln is waiting to take them to their evening at Ford's Theatre. Oh, how we would love to be able to warn him not to go!
The film ends with a flashback to Lincoln delivering his Second Inaugural Address.
Steven Spielberg's direction of the film is masterful. He and the screenwriter, Tony Kushner, have brilliantly interwoven the essence of the man with the brilliance of his words.
Extract from the Gettysburg Address 19th November 1863:
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal........................and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.".