Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Lincoln, is a bit of strange beast. The title might lead one to think that the film was some kind of bio of the man, whereas the film is almost wholly devoted to just one month in his life. A crucial month, January 1865, in which Lincoln forced through the House of Representatives the 13th Amendment to the constitution, the one outlawing slavery. Lincoln needed to get this amendment through before the war ended, to prevent the re-admitted confederate states blocking the amendment. Hence the rush to get it all done and dusted by the end of January.
As with all films which deal with real, well known historical facts, the audience already knows the outcome. The amendment will get passed. Any drama must therefore come from the political debates, arguments and the machinations involved in passing such an important measure. For this was a tale of both high and low politics. However there was very little of the high politics on show. Some overblown rhetoric from the opposition Democrats, but little else. No attempt was made to offer any kind of insight into what was behind their opposition. The film is almost exclusively about the other side, the Republicans, and here it was mainly about how to win over enough Democrat votes to win. And this was done by lots of what can only be called bribery, corruption and arm pulling. Three rather shady characters were employed to do this dirty work, to keep the President at one remove. Some of their dialogue and antics provided a little light relief in the film, but again there was no real depth to either their characters or to how they persuaded individual congressmen to change their vote. A more detailed exposé of how this was done would have added some real drama to the proceedings.
However that would have been a different film. This one deserves its title as the focus throughout is on Lincoln himself. Magnificently played by Daniel Day-Lewis, this shows an aged man, slightly frail and burdened or over-burdened by the strains of the Civil War. This Lincoln is fond of telling old tales to illustrate his points, almost in the way of parables. He is a kindly old man, a grandfather type figure. However he dominates in a steely way the cabinet and simply browbeats his colleagues to get this amendment through. Again, however there is little in the way of real dramatic tension for all his table thumping. The nearest to drama comes with his fraught relationship with his wife, the excellent Sally Fields. Theirs is a very strained marriage at the personal level, though she does seem to support his politics. They are also both concerned to keep their elder son out the fighting. Not the most honourable traits in a leader who presides over the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Though this does seem to be a continuing tradition among the political elites in the USA. The confrontations between father and son do provide some of the real dramatic intensity that is lacking elsewhere in the film.
The rest of the cast act their parts with aplomb, though little is really required of them. James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes as the three wheeler dealers mentioned above added a bit of colour and levity to the film. The only others to stand out to some degree were Tommy Lee Jones as the ascerbic Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens and David Strathairn as Lincoln’s trusted Secretary of State, William Seward. Despite my reservations this is a film well worth seeing for its particular account of the low politics involved in the passing of such an important measure and above all for Daniel Day-Lewis’ great portrayal of Lincoln.