Historians were disappointed by the veracity of Hollywood’s last attempt to explore the life and times of Abraham Lincoln.
Perhaps the title may have provided the clue that last year’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter wasn’t destined to be the definitive life and times of ‘Honest Abe’. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln also fails to deliver an overall life-story, but that’s because it was never intended to do so.
Lincoln’s focus is narrowed to a few weeks at the beginning of 1865, and the passage of the 13th Amendment through Congress. The President has to find a way to keep his own Republican party behind the Bill, while luring at least 20 Democrats to his side by fair means or foul. At times the tone is akin to a two-and-a-half hour episode of The West Wing. (And your reaction to that last sentence might determine whether or not this is a film for you.)
Not that you need to be an expert on America’s history or its political machinery to follow the film. Spielberg skilfully reveals all the political and cultural context that the audience needs. Early scenes deftly show that opposition to slavery was, for many, more a matter of political expediency than a moral absolute: useful if it ends the war, but undesirable if peace could be achieved by other means. While one (black) character assures Abe that God will make sure that the Bill passes, another (white) politician denounces it with the words, ‘Congress must never declare equal those whom God created unequal’.
Lincoln’s own position is conflicted: he has a deeply held opposition to slavery, yet no wish to see blacks given the vote. His desire to end slavery is pitted against two other compelling priorities: ending the war and preserving the Union. Spielberg shows how Lincoln juggles these conflicting imperatives, playing differently to a variety of galleries to get the job done.
An excellent cast, led by Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones, are all on fine form. More than that, the film leaves the audience to ponder questions about the place — and the cost — of compromise in any endeavour. That the suggested answers are mature and complex makes this a worthy recipient of any of the awards tipped to come its way.