Jack Crutcher reviews Steven Spielberg’s highly acclaimed biopic, ‘Lincoln’
Any Steven Spielberg movie release creates a certain level of expectation, but for this particular account of a period in American History which saw a nation change forever, it’s sky-high. Bringing together one of the greatest Hollywood directors of his generation, the talent of Daniel Day-Lewis and the personality cult of Abraham Lincoln, the pressure to succeed could not have been greater. Happily, with twelve Oscar and ten BAFTA nominations to its name, Lincoln can safely say it did America proud.
The greatest success of this film can be identified by its refusal to shy away from exposing the moments of vulnerability Abraham Lincoln suffered during his fight to sign the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery whilst simultaneously coordinating the defeat of the Confederacy in the closing stages of the American Civil War. By focussing on the paradoxes of the man that was Lincoln, Spielberg manages to turn an American legend into something we can all appreciate the greatness of.
The weight of History was undoubtedly a burden on Lincoln and Day-Lewis captures this perfectly with finely tuned moments of poised vulnerability that draw attention to the isolation and loneliness of his fight. At one stage Lincoln lashes out at his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and slaps him around the face as he insists he wants to join the army. As his son leaves him standing alone Lincoln shuffles his hands awkwardly and stands slightly hunched. For such visceral moments he is reduced to a powerless and vulnerable old man scared of losing his son. The narrative of the film could have easily focussed on myth of Lincoln – achieving political greatness with a god-given ease, but Spielberg resiliently poses questions through these moments of personal tragedy that humanise his legend. The real victory for Spielberg though is how these moments cause the audience to question whether Lincoln can achieve his political aims through this personal tragedy, and despite knowing the outcome you find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat praying Lincoln pulls through.
Throughout the film the main focus remains on the political and social dynamics of the proposed constitutional amendment. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) takes part in some of the most boisterous scenes in the movie as the U.S House Of Representatives takes on a more British House of Commons feel (as it once had) with pro and anti slavery representatives screaming and shouting at each other. These scenes may disappoint political junkies as the narrative is slightly simplistic and perpetuates an overly obvious good guy/ bad guy power struggle. But these simplified political battles are nicely tempered by the more personal scenes associated with a Spielberg epic. Such as, on the morning of the vote when groups of Black Americans fill the spectator seats in the House to the disgust of the pro slave Democrats and the tension Spielberg provokes as each member is asked how he will vote. The realisation that Lincoln’s personal perseverance has worked and the extra votes needed fall into place frames the occasion well and the jubilation of an expectant nation shows this movie is not just about an ideologically broken America.
The film allows the celebration of the victory both politically and militarily to sink in. Lincoln restores the Union, frees the slaves and a legend is born, but the personal anguish of Abraham Lincoln is brought to a bitter end as news of his assassination is announced at a theatre with his youngest son in attendance. The film balances reputation and reality without blindly idolising Lincoln but also without damaging his greatness.