Politics is such a soiled playground, we’ve forgotten it was once peppered by great statesman with honour and ethics. It comes as a jolt of pleasurable surprise when confronted with the dramatically engaging and morally uplifting Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, as skilfully recreated by Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis.
The time is January 1865, America is still bleeding with the ongoing Civil War, but Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is poised on the cusp of writing history — seeing the North win and slavery abolished, if he can somehow push through the unpopular 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives.
But here is the crux of the matter — if the war is won before the Amendment is passed, it will not go through and will be resisted by the Southern States. Yet, even as Lincoln’s lobbyists (that include James Spader) are trying to drum up support for the unpopular bill among Democrats and Republicans, three commissioners from the Confederacy head up to Washington City wanting to negotiate peace.
It becomes a nail-biting race against time, a chessboard battle of wits, nerve and legalese with Lincoln poised, no stooped, over the game board, nudging, moving, cajoling, calculating — with no guarantee of an assured win.
To create such absorbing drama is no small feat when you are dealing with history and known outcomes. Kudos to Tony Kushner’s screenplay — based partly on Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln – which is astonishingly effective. Unusually, it is a wordy screenplay that never loses the magic of the moment to verbiage — even as it allows politicians the privilege of exchanging linguistically complex insults or Lincoln, his quirky penchant for telling stories.
Spielberg’s strength has always been storytelling — and he excels in that here, aided by long-time collaborator, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The sombre mood and look of the time are painstakingly recreated, even as Spielberg keeps the focus taut; we are allowed entry into the agile mind of the President and his humanist heart as he negotiates on several battlefields.
Lincoln has to contend not only with the Democrats who hate the proposed amendment — but also negotiate with people on his side such as Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) or difficult mavericks such as the fiery Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). If his highly-strung wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) still blames him for the death of their son Willie, there’s also a living son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wants to defy his parents and enlist.
Day-Lewis nails his Lincoln — physically with the beard, stoop and springy hair he effortlessly morphs into the President. With delicacy, rather than any ponderous sense of history, he assumes Lincoln’s many mantles: the man who is haunted by the death of his son, the ongoing war and the injustice of slavery; the lawyer and statesman who plots his way to pushing through the 13th Amendment; the amusing raconteur; the president who knows his power.
Day-Lewis simultaneously demythologises Abraham Lincoln and builds the myth of greatness.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones
Storyline: A tightly focussed drama centred on Lincoln’s final months in the White House.
Bottomline: The closest you can get to being a fly on the wall, as history unfolds.