Culturally, we tend to become compelled by events of the past during significant times in the present. Steven Spielberg’s historical drama ‘Lincoln’, which is packaged as a biopic of America’s 16th President but is more accurately about the passing of the Amendment to abolish slavery, served as a reminder of how far racial equality had come at the height of Obama’s own presidency. It was also a depiction of the challenges required to make even a small step of progress, a timely theme that resonated as President Obama struggled in 2012 to resolve some of the country’s most controversial issues such as gun laws and gay marriage.
‘Lincoln’ depicts the political manoeuvring required to gain enough votes in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, which would emancipate black people from slavery by deeming them equal in the eyes of the law. An estimated 20 votes stand between a change in the constitution that would put America on the path to equality and end its bloody four-year civil war. Abraham Lincoln faces hostility from resistant members of both his own Republican Party and the opposing Democratic Party who he must convince to change their votes to ‘yes’. Promises of power are made, rules are bent and ingenious political tactics are employed in order to secure these 20 assurances
‘Lincoln’ is mostly a series of old men talking in smoky rooms – which Spielberg shoots handsomely despite stifling his usual reverence for spectacle – but Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner pens these debates with eloquence and intelligence. Meanwhile, an ensemble of some of our most gifted character actors bring these scenes to life with passion, emotion and drama. James Spader provides the movie with some comic relief as the swaggering Republican operative William Bilbo who lobbies votes for Lincoln, and Lee Pace is equally great in a theatrical performance as the most vocal opponent of the Amendment in the House.
It is Tommy Lee Jones who shines among the supporting cast though playing the Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens who battles tooth and nail for abolition. His acerbic verbal brawls amount for some of the movie’s most entertaining moments – particularly as argues that even his Democrat opponent (“proof that some men are inferior, endowed by his maker with dim wits”) deserves equality before the law. He also contributes to ‘Lincoln’s emotional crescendo when the vote is passed and Thaddeus retires into the arms of his loving partner, a black woman on whose behalf he evidently fought.
‘Lincoln’ is, however, the Daniel Day Lewis show. All eyes were on his performance. It was predicted to win that year’s Academy Award for Best Actor, his third after ‘My Left Foot’ and ‘There Will Be Blood’, before even a still image of footage appeared online. He unsurprisingly delivered, and indeed won the Oscar, showcasing the most nuanced work of his career. He creates an Abraham Lincoln whose presence fills the room and yet has an unassuming, quiet nature. He performs the president as a man who is self-assured, compassionate, intellectual and intriguingly flawed. During his speeches, you hang onto Day Lewis’s every syllable.
This review is part of New In Cinema’s Steven Spielberg season. Find all our reviews and on-going rankings of Spielberg’s movies here.