The Color Purple, Amistad and now Lincoln! What’s next for Steven Spielberg? I’d like to suggest Martin Luther King. And why ever not, the Ku Klux Klan.
Clocking in at 2½ hours, Spielberg’s Lincoln is no biopic of America’s 16th president. Based in part on the bestselling book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Goodwin, it focuses on the last few months of his short life, his second term as president and the Civil War that led to the passage of the 13th Amendment in the US House of Representatives.
Spielberg & Pulitzer-winning writer Tony Kushner show how Lincoln was not alone in integrating the issue of the abolition of slavery in the war for the Union and the soul of America. But in doing this, the filmmakers marginalise (for reasons best known to themselves) the important role that blacks played in the process of emancipation. I think I read in the American Centre’s February bulletin that many celebrated freedom by formalising their marriage – an act prohibited under slavery. He wasn’t the first liberal (or the last) to have a black mistress. The US’s third president Thomas Jefferson fathered several children by his slave Sally Hemings.
We see marital discord in the Lincoln household in intimate scenes but we are delighted to say, he was a one woman man who was ever faithful to his wife Mary. She was a devout Christian as he was not. In fact he was openly anti-religion at various periods, and yet firmly believed that God had a hand in abolishing slavery and would say so in categorical terms.
Most school children know he was a poor farm boy born in a one-room log cabin who made it to the White House, and Daniel Day Lewis makes him utterly compelling and inspiring; tall, stooping, grey, gaunt and all. At a time when people are more cynical than ever about politicians, Spielberg’s film reminds us of the power of democracy, democracy that may be fractious and flawed and divided as the US was in Lincoln’s time. And as we are now.
I read somewhere that back then in the 1860s American politicians hurled insults like “you fatuous nincompoop!” at each other during House debates. Spielberg-Kushner replicate this in a riveting scene where Tommy Lee’s Stevens delivers the most heartfelt speech of all, laced with invective against a pro-slavery politician: “Yes, we may not be equal in life, but we must be equal before the LAW, even an unworthy, worthless fool like you must be equal before the law.”
Lincoln himself is humble and wracked by doubt over whether he is equipped to steer the nation through troubled times. “Do you think we choose to be born?” he asks an aide, “or are we fitted to the times we’re born into?” Day Lewis’ gives a brilliant, award worthy performance and one that is matched by a first class cast. Tommy Lee Jones’s abolitionist Representative, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, whose visit to the Holy Land inspired Lincoln to want to go there himself, Sally Field’s perfect turn as the needy first lady, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert, the older son of the Lincolns who wants to enlist in the war.
The attention to detail is fantastic: art directors, production and costume designers are meticulous in capturing the look and feel of the mid 19th century perfectly lensed by Janusz Kaminski. The film ends, not with Lincoln’s dastardly assassination, but with his iconic “with malice toward none, with charity for all” second inaugural address.