Every country has to have at least one revered leader in its past. Someone who can be remembered as having been benevolent, wise and soothingly composed throughout some of history’s toughest periods. Which is not a Discovery Channel show about the difficulties of early modern menstruation.
South Africa has Mandela, the UK has Churchill (along with some fictional chaps) and America…has a whole legion of founding fathers. It’s a nation built on the slightly misguided idea that shared principles of freedom and a hatred of colonial rule united a stoic group of luxuriantly bearded men in solemn fraternity, leading to the birth of a nation founded on a rock solid constitution.
In reality it’s a nation whose relatively brief story has been one wracked with pain and war. Which, if anything, makes it pretty normal. But amongst all of America’s elder statesmen, it’s Abraham Lincoln who stands head and top hat above the rest. And Steven Spielberg has done an admirable job of bringing his finest hour to the big screen.
Lincoln focuses on the final act of the American Civil War, with the southern states being pushed to the brink of defeat and the promise of a pyrrhic victory looming, with 600,000 dead bodies stinking up the arguments on both sides of the fence. As a delegation of southern generals makes its way to Washington to hold peace talks, and with Honest Abe riding high on his election to a second term in office, he realises that this could be his best chance to push through a 13th amendment to the constitution, making slavery illegal and ending the war without the need for real compromise.
Lincoln and his allies have to use whatever means necessary, within the malleable boundaries of the law, to procure the 20 or so votes required to give his Republican party the majority it needs to pass the amendment. And with lots of lame duck Democrats looking for gainful employment, it should be simple. Which, of course, it isn’t.
Daniel Day-Lewis puts in a well-judged, almost certainly Oscar-worthy performance as Lincoln, slipping physically into the role with such skill that the tricks behind this embodiment become imperceptible. His Lincoln is wise and always ready with an anecdote to illustrate a point, but he’s also fragile and imperfect, favouring his youngest son over his older military aged offspring Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
Tommy Lee-Jones is perhaps more impressive as Thaddeus Stevens, the most radical and venerable of the Republicans whose views on race equality (that all men are indeed created equal, literally and unequivocally) could end up derailing the president’s campaign for votes.
Sally Field brings a strained desperation to the part of Mary Todd Lincoln, and the film goes some way towards combating the perception that her mental instability was a limiting factor on her husband.
In fact there’s not a weak performance in the film, although with each scene and sentence being so saturated with import and significance, as a horn-heavy score ushers the audience towards misty-eyed patriotism, it can feel tryingly reverential at times.
But with a script that doesn’t cater to the lowest common denominator and a sense of place and history that’s hard to achieve, it’s difficult not to fall for a film that manages to turn the procedural pettiness of politics into an emotionally affecting blockbuster.