25 January – 7 February; DCA
It’s an odd thing watching a film when you know how it ends. Rather than needing to focus on predicting (or anticipating) the outcome one focuses instead on the journey, picking up details along the way. We know how the subject matter of Lincoln will resolve itself: most viewers will be familiar with the passing of Abraham Lincoln’s 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, and also Lincoln’s subsequent assassination. But what of the man himself during this period? How will this be dealt with? In this well-researched historical drama, Tony Kushner’s literate and frequently witty screenplay moves beyond mere historical accuracy to add great emotion and intellect to its portrayal of Lincoln.
Some viewers may go into this film fearing a gross lack of subtlety, over-simplification and bad acting, but Spielberg as director, the lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis and Lincoln himself as the subject of the film all complement one another, so that the final product becomes more than the sum of its parts.
The figure of Lincoln is first introduced to us via a slow pan back to reveal an indistinct silhouette to which some soldiers of the Civil War speak directly. Such an introduction might offer the persona of Lincoln as somewhat elusive — a shady character from history, enigmatic and unknowable even when dealing with the people he leads. This may give the impression that Spielberg is going to mythologize Lincoln, but this is not the case. Spielberg looks at Lincoln with a steady and firm gaze, even if near the end of the film Lincoln once again returns to silhouette and to the history he would come to represent. He is not depicted as a man of complete virtue but as someone who was not above bribery and manipulation, if he saw it as necessary to achieving the desired result, as a man who spoke in anecdotes and quasi-poetic terms and had moments of great vulnerability.
Daniel Day-Lewis provides an astonishing, controlled and confident portrayal. He makes all the other performances in the film, stellar though the cast may be, look over-acted and histrionic. Spielberg too, in his direction, allows no flab. The camera work is subtle and unobtrusive, allowing brief moments of action and beauty but serving in the main to document situations rather than moralise over them. The final iconic shots of Lincoln, slowly superimposed over a candle flame, may be on-the-nose but on the whole Spielberg is remarkably, and appropriately, restrained. The mise-en-scène is frequently full and detailed, and in the more potent moments highlights the isolation Lincoln went through in passing the amendment.
In spite of this, the lack of focus on the slaves is troubling. The amendment abolishing slavery affected black Americans much more than it could have affected Lincoln, despite all his tribulations in ensuring its passing. The longest screen time given to any black American is a scene which sees Lincoln’s maid tear up while watching racism rise to a distressing pitch during a debate over the place of white and black people in the world . Although we must bear in mind that the film is principally a biopic of Lincoln, this brief interlude seems unsatisfactory and may even come across as patronising.
One can criticise the film’s ideology and internal politics; any Hollywood film dealing with such a vast and complex issue is bound to raise such intellectual hackles. The film’s account of history may also be problematic. But if we take it for what it is, a well directed and almost perfectly acted film telling the story of Lincoln’s final political acts, this film truly delivers.