Lincoln is an understated film; for most of its duration it is essentially lots of middle-aged men arguing about politics. Yet it remains thoroughly engaging for its two and a half hour duration – largely due to the excellent performances of all involved, but in particular Daniel Day-Lewis
While Day-Lewis faces the challenge of playing an American icon (helped by an uncanny physical resemblance), he does at least benefit from the distance that time brings. Whereas Meryl Streep’s performance in The Iron Lady can be held up and judged against personal memories and recordings of Thatcher herself, Day-Lewis has the space in which to form his own portrayal of such an iconic figure (albeit preceded by countless other interpretations). Day-Lewis brings humanity to the role, inhabiting the man and avoiding being dwarfed by Lincoln’s legacy.
There’s long been a tradition of focussing on the big men in history, often at the expense of the wider picture. The leading protagonist in a movement is idolised, with historical change ascribed to their actions alone. This is especially true of those who are martyred to their cause – in the public imagination Martin Luther King is often seen as almost single-handedly responsible for and representative of the Civil Rights Movement. While the film’s focus on Lincoln subscribes to this convention, it doesn’t idolise him. He is an excellent politician but a Machiavellian one; lying, bullying and bribing his way to the success of the Thirteenth Amendment.
The film encapsulates the contemporary debate about emancipation – even among those supporting the bill there are conflicting viewpoints, over the nature of “equality” and the practical reality that would follow emancipation. Public opinion did not tend to favour abolition of slavery; Lincoln was forced to sell the Amendment as the final blow to defeat the Confederacy.
The film concludes with the Amendment being passed by the House of Representatives, but in reality abolition was only the first step to equality; there was and still is a long way to go, despite the great progress occurring in the following century. It would probably have been beyond the imagination of most contemporary Americans to consider that in less than 150 years there would be a black President of America. Today, Obama is hoping for a progressive second term with action on immigration, gay rights and gender equality, despite a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and issues such as race, abortion and homosexuality are a deep divide within American society. Spielberg’s film is an aptly timed comment on American political culture, as well as an intriguing portrait of one of America’s most loved and mythologised presidents.