Abe needs a few amendments
Verdict: Heartfelt hagiography
Steven Spielberg has admitted Lincoln is the first film he’s directed wearing a tie.
So respectful and stodgily solemn is his Oscar-nominated film it looks as if Spielberg directed it in a 19th-century frock coat with white kid gloves, and on bended knee.
It’s not all bad. The film offers a minutely detailed account of the political wrangles leading up to the adoption by Congress of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery across America.
It succeeds in showing Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) as a political fixer, not above bribery and being economical with the truth.
If you’re gripped by the minutiae of 19th-century American politics, it’s moderately enjoyable.
Its message for today is partly about the importance of idealism with regard to racial equality, but it’s also — very topically, in the light of Barack Obama’s tribulations — about the need for compromise.
This is most powerfully dramatised in the reluctant decision of Lincoln’s ally, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to tone down his radical, racially egalitarian beliefs in order not to scare off the Right. Jones’s moments of light relief and irreverence — though far too crude for the historical context — steal the picture, and will probably win him Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars.
James Spader’s portrait of W. N. Bilbo, a cheery rogue who did much of Lincoln’s dirty work, is also watchable. Sally Field, as Lincoln’s neurotic wife Mary, has a thanklessly nagging part, but does at least manage to reveal a side of Honest Abe that was slightly human.
Day-Lewis looks the part and supplies plenty of gravitas, with welcome traces of a dry sense of humour. He remains, however, a mythic, super-heroic icon of leadership, speaking in wise parables and high-flown rhetoric.
The sad truth is that Spielberg and his writer Tony Kushner are offering a phoney, sanitised version of Lincoln. Most modern re-evaluations of the Republican President suggest that he was not the liberal that present-day Democrats would like him to have been.
The real Lincoln believed in whites’ superiority over blacks, condemned miscegenation and was keen to ship black slaves off to overseas plantations after the abolition of slavery.
You’d never know it from Spielberg’s film, but the anti-slavery 13th Amendment originated not with Lincoln but with a petition campaign by early feminists called the Women’s National Loyal League. The film wildly exaggerates the President’s role in ending slavery and virtually ignores black people’s contribution.
The most prominent abolitionists included newspaper editor William Garrison, heiress Angelina Grimke, novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe and the freed slave Frederick Douglass. Not one of these is mentioned in Lincoln.
The film most culpably leaves out the fact that, while events in this picture were occurring, southern slaves were already rebelling and seizing the land where they worked.
Nowhere in the film is any mention by Lincoln or any of his allies of the strategic advantages of ruining the slave-based southern economy, and freeing millions of slaves behind enemy lines, many of whom would then fight for the Yankee army.
This is high-minded hagiography, and too much of it resembles a Disneyfied waxworks show with an animatronic version of Daniel Day-Lewis intoning speeches by the great man in a reedy tenor, while John Williams’s sub-Aaron Copland score strains for sonorous solemnity.
Spielberg ends the film with Lincoln’s assassination, but here again the director’s decision to show the event from the point of view of Lincoln’s young son has the effect of infantilising history.
The murder by John Wilkes Booth was not as Spielberg portrays it, an isolated event, but part of a political coup, with two other assassination attempts plotted simultaneously against Lincoln’s vice-president and secretary of state.
Spielberg is always a professional, and the film is never less than well-crafted. Though some will find it a tedious talkathon, it’s quite a bit more enjoyable than his last venture into similar territory, Amistad. But I don’t see it doing well on this side of the Atlantic.
There’s none of the flair, fun or originality that mark Spielberg’s finest work. It was a patriotic inevitability that this very American film would receive multiple Oscar nominations, but if it does win at the Academy Awards it will be more for worthiness than for artistic or historical merit.