Spielberg’s film set in January 1865 at the start of the second term of Lincoln’s presidency. Lincoln is determined to push for the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery before the American Civil war ends. He must get the requisite number of votes and his allies, including Secretary of State William Edward, pressurise different politicians into voting in the required way. Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens who gives a powerful speech in the House of Representatives. Lincoln’s son is keen to join the army over Mrs Lincoln’s objections, and she is grieving for her dead son. Will the vote go Lincoln’s way?
Spielberg often suffers from musical incontinence as we get syrupy music galore. In Lincoln the music is more restrained, but this being the civil war we still get the usual trumpet solos and military drum rolls. The folksy repertoire is something that Spielberg has always exploited: the innate wisdom and decency of the ‘ordinary’ guy against the big leaguers, the blue light moments, and reverence for gooey eyed kids. This is kept to a merciful minimum. Daniel Day Lewis is honest Abe, always ready with a hokey anecdote illustrated with homely metaphors. He gives Lincoln a high pitched voice which is mesmeric as it becomes more forceful. He looks like Lincoln and moulds into him as he ages. This is not so much acting as a summoning of his ghost. The distinctive stove pipe hat towers over a face growing as if into weathered wood. The scenes in this film look autumnal and smokey as if they could easily blend into the sepia photographs that confetti films about this era. There is a Balzacian density in the interiors of the houses. Among all this Day Lewis does justice to the stature of this man to the point of hagiography. In the US there is often a reluctance to examine the clay feet of their idols. Initially, Lincoln was anti-slave, but anti-equality of races, he was primarily anti-secessionist. He was a racist wishing for the deportation of black people. His adherence to the black cause was a belated recognition of their role in the civil war. In Lincoln black people are not allowed to be humanly complicated, they are rather noble and eloquent.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens and his skilled oratory only falters on the details of equality. His performance is powerfully theatrical as is David Strathairn’s as Seward. It’s often the case that political debates in mainstream films get self congratulatory and poseurish. This is Spielberg’s Twelve Angry Men. Egotistical exhibitionism pretends to humane disinterest, rhetoric wins over detailed argument. Lincoln uses a lot of pressure to get the necessary votes and he seems to do it in real time. The political struggles compete with the domestic hell in the grieving of Mrs Lincoln (Sally Ann Fields). Her family’s conflict mirror those of the nation. This is a fine portrayal of Lincoln and undoubtedly towers over the hundreds of other Lincolns from D.W. Griffiths to Raymond Massi’s et al.