When I was 13 or so, I used to compete against Daniel Day-Lewis in verse-speaking. Needless to say, he always won, and listening to his mellifluous voice and delivery as Abraham Lincoln, it is clear to see why.
Liam Neeson originally declined the role, saying he was too old; Day-Lewis is only five years younger but manages to fill the great man’s shoes to perfection. He also turned the part down at first, feeling too humble to undertake such an iconic role, but later sent Spielberg a recording of the voice he intended to use in a box marked with a skull and crossbones so Spielberg alone would hear it first. And it is this voice that is so mesmerising, not just to us the audience, but in unveiling the humanity and humour of the man through the plethora of stories and jokes he recounts, even at the tensest moments, to his staff, who listen simultaneously spell-bound and puzzled by this most un-presidential behavior.
This is the tour de force of the film: to reveal Lincoln as an extraordinary human being: a man of the highest intelligence, guile and determination to do what he thinks is right. He is heart-broken by the horrific human toll of the Civil War; repulsed by slavery and committed to ensure that both come to an end as soon as possible. He realises he will never win the vote on the 13thAmendment to the Slavery Act unless it is passed before the war ends and the Confederates are re-admitted to Congress.
The majority of the film shows the machinations involved in trying to achieve the two-thirds majority required: the endless meetings, scheming, trade-offs and incentives offered to win at any cost. Nothing changes in politics it seems. But this is where the film also comes unstuck.
A friend (you know who you are!) has told me he had read Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincolnby Doris Kearns Goodwin – and on which Spielberg also based the film – to prepare him. I did not have the time and consequently found the first third of the film confusing in the extreme and rather turgid. Without being brought up with the Civil War history as part of the National Curriculum, it is impossible to know who all those surrounding Lincoln are; they are rarely given names apart from occasionally being called by their Christian ones. More confusing are the three louche Musketeers, as I call them, and their political affiliations and roles, apart from being on a mission to win votes, and to add a bit of much-needed humour.
Not being an American detracts from understanding the historical context of this film. This is compensated for, to some extent, by the superb supporting performances, cinematography and attention to period detail. Apparently Spielberg recreated Lincoln’s Mansion House office exactly, and even made sure that the ticking of the clock comes from Lincoln’s pocket watch. While Day-Lewis dominates the film and deserves the nominations for Best Actor (by the time you read this he may have won both Oscar and BAFTA) there is a quality supporting cast with the likes of Tommy-Lee Jones in an appalling wig as the dedicated emancipationist, Thaddeus Stephens, and Sally Field as Mary Lincoln, who put on 25lbs for the part. The death of their middle son has unbalanced Mary and there are some powerful scenes reflecting the depth of her grief, bordering on insanity, which eventually led to Robert having her committed after Lincoln’s death.
The scenes in Congress superbly convey the depth of emotion on the slavery issue felt by both sides, and there are gritty set pieces during the various debates, insults and words flying, tempers flaring and, during the final vote, a palpable tension. Spielberg’s skill as a director in capturing the period is never in doubt.
That being said, the film is entirely dominated by the brilliance of Day-Lewis and the journey toward Lincoln’s finest hour, the passing of the 13thAmendment and the subsequent ending of the Civil War. And while it will win many awards, the first third of the film lets it down through historical obfuscation and an un-welcome contribution to the 150 minutes’ length. Non-American audiences may well enjoy Lincolnfor the elements of excellence, but I remain surprised at the arrogant assumption that the world understands the history of the United States to a degree where it needs so little explanation.