Lincoln is an incomprehensibly fast three hours to sit through. Often more like a play than a film, much of the action takes place in a freezing indoor world of murky grey and black hues; the outside world, and history, constantly threatening to come bursting in through the windows. This darkness makes the film’s more luminous moments all the more beautiful and, perhaps intentionally, leads us to search for sources of light in the outstanding supporting cast, and of course, in Lincoln himself, played by the great Daniel-Day Lewis.
The film details President Lincoln’s efforts to introduce the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, an action that will put an end to the American Civil War (thus delighting many people) while simultaneously ending the institution of slavery (thus annoying many people). Amidst howls of indignation and accusations of underhandedness and dictatorship in both the political and military arenas, a somewhat mad scramble is set in motion to attain sufficient support before the motion is put to the vote. Though the film is fiercely and very intelligently political, a whole host of other dramas take place both at and around its political center, both in Lincoln’s life and in the lives of those that live both in his light and in his shadow. These dramas remind you that all this noise is really about whether or not another person’s humanity can, or even should, be recognised; about who can be free, who can’t, and why, not just in terms of slavery, but in terms of war and in terms of home; everyday life. It’s not just the story of the United States, but the story of all of us, and this is a big part of the film’s intrinsic value.
The power of Daniel Day-Lewis’ half-human, half-angelic presence in the title role honestly defies description, but I will try my best. His presence in a scene creates an invisible shifting in atmosphere like the effect of a slight breeze in a closed room. He speaks in a small, hushed and ravaged voice that somehow resonates right down to your bones. You stare for hours at his ethereal, emaciated form and beautiful face, and find such kindness, pain and glorious humanity staring back at you. You worry that he’s going to fall over and smash. You listen, charmed and enthralled in spite of yourself, to his digressive storytelling, literary references and constant quoting of Shakespeare, spellbound by the places they take him. You smile at his unforced ease in engaging with people from both the ‘wrong’ and the ‘right’ sides of the tracks with equal respect. Eventually, you realise that the principal emotion he inspires is affection, which is an astonishing and rather rare thing to inspire in a film audience nowadays. In the film’s featurette, Day-Lewis says something to the effect of him never having loved another, non-living human being as much as Abraham Lincoln. This love for the character is astoundingly contagious, and, when it comes to Lincoln’s assassination, it puts the audience into the position of understanding, on as deep a level as something like a film can take you, what a catastrophe his loss must have been for so many people. Day-Lewis’ performance amounts to three hours of acting genius: subtle, nuanced and incredibly powerful.
Steven Spielberg happily hasn’t made the mistake of casting a load of ninnies in supporting roles that you forget about the minute they’re off-screen (and often when they’re on-screen, too). His fine supporting cast is distinctive and commanding, most notably Tommy Lee Jones as the formidable Republican Radical leader Thaddeus Stevens, a fiercely opinionated abolitionist who grabs the audience’s attention by the scruff of the neck and whose intense command of voice and facial expression makes sure your attention stays with him long after he’s let you go. Further excellent performances by David Strathairn as long-suffering Secretary of State William Seward and by Lee Pace as Fernando Wood. Poor Sally Field doesn’t get much time to shine as First Lady Mary Lincoln, but keep a sharp eye-out for her and her husband’s heart-rending argument about the death of their son; an intensely emotive scene that brings both actors out in all the dazzling complexity of their characters.
The only complaint I have to make of the film is, oddly, its beginning and its ending. Both seem rather rushed, disjointed and out of touch with the rest of the film, particularly the ending. The Thirteenth Amendment is passed; everyone is thrilled; Lincoln asks the Confederacy to surrender and utters the beautiful line ‘Shall we stop this bleeding?’ Then, suddenly, we’re rushed through to Lincoln’s assassination (which we don’t see take place) like Garfield to a plate of lasagna. It leaves you blinking in amazement and wondering confusedly how you got there in the first place. Personally, I don’t think dealing with the assassination is necessary at all: the audience knows it’s going to happen; its influence is there even if it isn’t shown. End with ‘Shall we stop this bleeding?’ It’s poignant. It takes you somewhere. It gives you hope. Or, if the assassination is, for some reason, a big part of the director’s vision, then start with it, tell the story in flashback, and bring things full circle. Don’t just dump the audience into it! It turns the end of the film into a bit of an anticlimax.
Otherwise, beautiful. The decision to cut down on huge, expensive battle scenes and to bring the drama of the civil war and of slavery into cluttered drawing rooms gives the exquisite cast ample opportunity to make the drama vividly real and for the audience to experience the actions and feelings of the characters in a very personal way.