Slave to director’s venerationComment on this story
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
CAST: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
CLASSIFICATION: 12 PG VP
RUNNING TIME: 152 minutes
A LAVISH production of meticulous arguments and even more talking, this biopic is about the process of abolishing slavery in America, and specifically Abraham Lincoln’s role therein.
It draws on all the tropes we expect from Civil War movies, opening with a brutal war sequence and composer John Williams drawing on motifs and rhythms popular during this time for his score.
Hospital wards filled with amputees compete for nastiness with Lincoln riding through a field of bodies after the battle at Petersburg. The costumes are painstakingly accurate, the rooms filled with all the right minutiae of the period, and people’s speech has the old-school cadence of the time.
That realistic portrayal of the ugliness of war and the visual reality of that time is in contrast with the pushing of the agenda that Lincoln was the main instigator behind the legal abolition of slavery in America.
if you know your American Civil War history you will wonder about the portrayal – as if Lincoln was the only one fighting to abolish slavery, when in fact there were several abolitionists – and the suggestion that black people waited for the white old men on high to save them. But those are minor quibbles, since essentially this is a film about a specific person and not a history lesson.
There’s a lot of material to get through – the film draws on all the famous speeches and recorded minutes of meetings and speeches in the House – making it more talky biopic than sweeping political drama.
In particular it concentrates on the last four months of Lincoln’s life as he prepared to end the Civil War and end slavery with the introduction of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution.
There’s a lot of horsetrading and handing out of patronage on the part of Lincoln to push through his amendment, and the compromises he makes find a very contemporary analogy in Barack Obama and his proposed reforms of American health care.
Could this film really be such a blatant push to portray the current US president in a more saintly light?
There’s nothing more suited to cultural imperialism than film-making – it’s the quickest, easiest way to change how regular folk see an issue or person, without blatantly saying what you want to say. But, be that as it may, on the face of it this is a film about a specific person and it owes its success to Daniel Day-Lewis, who once again completely disappears into a role.
We get the iconic imagery we associate with the Lincoln of history books – Day-Lewis creates a slightly stooped old man with the difficult hair who hated wearing gloves, sported a stovepipe hat and gave really good speeches. He goes for quiet, understated introspection; there is no scenery chewing here.
This is a Lincoln who loves telling stories, and the various interactions he has with the great ensemble cast are funny and poignant.
On the not-so-nice side we see the complicated relationship he had with his two sons and wife – Sally Field prophetically proclaiming the fear that history will remember Mary Todd Lincoln only as the mad wife, and little else.
But that is as negative as it gets; mostly the character is treated with such great reverence that the film borders on hagiography (the study of saints). It isn’t so much a film about Lincoln the real man as it is about Lincoln the icon, and Spielberg plays that up to the hilt.
If you liked… The Iron Lady, J Edgar or The Conspirator… you will like this.