Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln is a physically dark, and at times claustrophobic film which, with its beautiful, almost Daguerreotype cinematography, creates an immediate sense of an 1860s reality that pulls the viewer into the coal and log fired rooms of the White House and the cigar hazed chambers of the Capital Building, where we see a nation’s representatives move toward the biggest, and bravest, social change in history: that of ensuring the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery is voted through the House before the end of the Civil War.
Lincoln is a masterpiece of the craft of film making where Spielberg allows the camera to hang unseen like another oil lamp. In other words there is no obvious sense of the camera’s presence, no intrusion of the 21st century: we are simply in those rooms listening to the machinations of the members of the House arguing the finer points of the amendment. And who might have thought such scenes could have portrayed so forcefully, compellingly, and tellingly those decisive moments that effect us all?
In lesser directorial hands those scenes might easily have sunk into crass hyperbole, but what Spielberg did was to give his carefully chosen actors something of a freehand in the creation of their characters, thereby ensuring an overwhelming sense of verisimilitude and homage to a great institution.
This was achieved in no small by Tommy Lee Jones’ recreation of Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of this respected, and feared, abolitionist politician, who thought Lincoln might just walk away from his own 1863 Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Jones simply becomes Stevens, and we fear him and respect him, and by the end of the film almost love him.
The same is true of Daniel Day-Lewis’s stunning portrayal of Lincoln: a character Day-Lewis rebuilt from the bottom up enabling him to bestride this exceptional film with a performance of power, humour, despair and hope. One can feel the weight of war on his shoulders, and the weight of the need to get the 13th Amendment through the House no matter how, even if it means using deception. Neither the war, or the 13th, was a burden to Lincoln, but a necessary weight of office the vast shedding of blood now demanded. All of that is in Day-Lewis’ every look and gesture as he pleads with his wife (played frighteningly well by Sally Field) to understand their son’s need to join the army and fight, or the need for the amendment. It is there when he speaks with the telegraph operators in the basement of the white House, scenes that show him relaxing with young men who hang on his every word. It is there when he talks with his son as amputated legs and arms are wheeled past them in wheel barrows. It is there when he speaks with General U.S. Grant — his true ally — and it is most certainly there when he rides through a smoking battleground. Steven was wrong in his fears that Lincoln might run.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a masterpiece not only of the actor, but of a stunning creative artist, and rubs off on everyone involved with the film.
The Lincoln screenplay was written by Tony Kushner, based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and is a master class of how a good screenwriter effectively disappears within the subject of the work. Tony is now working on a play about Donald Trump.
Lincoln is a roller coaster of a film with many twists and turns, and although we know the outcome of the vote, it is still nail biting, edge of the seat stuff to the very end, which is, of course, only the start of something that continues to this day.