Lincoln (2012) (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, has proved to be one of those few films I don’t have a huge opinion on.  I went into the cinema, watched it, left, did some minimal research on the topic, but on the whole have been left mostly unchanged for having seen it.  Nevertheless, there are various points I’d like to pick up on.

The film is set across the early months of 1965 as the American Civil War drew to a close, after many years of bloody fighting which had left hundreds of thousands dead.  President Abraham Lincoln, recently re-elected, is not only fighting the Confederates to the south, but is also pushing to pass what would be the Thirteenth Amendment to the USA constitution which would abolish slavery.  As a purely historical film it is impossible to separate the plot from its historical source, though unfortunately I do not have a great enough knowledge of American history to comment in detail on the film’s accuracy.  I’ll presume that, artistic licence aside, it is the product of extensive research.  The film is very detailed in its coverage of the passing of the amendment, and I learned a lot about the circumstances involved.  I had no idea that the amendment was not passed until during the end of the war (as a means of ensuring that a wartime proclamation which had abolished slavery would continue when the war ended), nor the enormous difficulties it took convincing both the Democrats in opposition and Lincoln’s own Republican party to agree to it.

(On a tangent, it’s also interesting to see the Democrats as a more conservative party, dedicated at the time to keeping slavery, even if that was not their long-term ideological aim.  After the war the southern states would consistently vote democrats, which would continue until the second half of the 20th century when the parties’ power bases switched.  The Democrats would eventually provide the USA’s first black president, Barack Obama, in 2008.  It’s fascinating how political parties can change over the years.)

One challenge to creating such an in-depth portrayal of historical events which are predominantly political is that, for viewers who are not experts on the selected period, conveying the narrative to the audience can be challenging.  On this occasion, I think Spielberg has done exceedingly well, although that’s not without flaws.  Quite often, I was left confused over the precise mechanics of American law and the reasons for various actions.  I can’t think of any way this could be rectified without turning the film into a documentary, but it’s a flaw nonetheless.  Another incredulity I had was during the many occasions Democratic representatives were convinced to vote ‘yes’ to adopt the amendment by Lincoln’s… Is ‘henchmen’ too strong a word?  There was a lot of bribery, which is shocking if true, though believable.  However there were many instances were, after simply having a conversation, people would completely change their opinion – particularly when speaking to Lincoln himself.  Perhaps this is to exaggerate his oratory skills and negotiating ability, but I was never quite convinced.  I would also have liked to see more of the Confederate States of America in the South, to add to the realism.  Finally, it was also an odd decision, in a film about Lincoln, to not actually show his assassination, instead it being announced afterwards.  I can see why they might have left it out – it may have ruined the tone of the film’s generally jubilant ending by showing too many details, maybe – but I think including it would have been better.

Where the film excels most is the smaller historical details.  From the intricate design of primitive communications technology – constantly tapping messages in Morse Code – to the design of costumes, the film really felt like it was set in the 19th century.  I was particularly impressed with a shot filmed in front of the White House, a feature often seen today in modern politics, however completely immersed in the surroundings of a 19th century city.  I don’t know whether they actually filmed this scene in front of the White House – or even if that would be possible, perhaps it’s changed too much – but it felt utterly real.

The stand-out feature to Lincoln, as its perfomance at the Oscars would suggest, is the acting.  Daniel Day-Lewis is perfect in his portrayal as Lincoln.  He plays a thoughtful, somewhat quirky, and extremely likeable version of the US President, visually and vocally precisely as I would imagine him to be.  No footage exists of Lincoln, so he had more room to vary his performance, but it stands up to contemporary accounts of the man.  It’s a very balanced performance, unafraid to show both his strengths of diplomacy and strategy to the stresses of his family life.  I watched an interview of Day-Lewis and he is so different in real life.  Hiring a British actor to play Lincoln was always going to be a risky move, but one which has paid off in so many ways; even his accent is flawless.  The entire cast is also worthy of mention – Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Mary Lincoln were particularly impressive.

Overall, Lincoln is a very successful film in terms of achieving its aims; well directed, well acted, and creates a vibrant historical period.  However it is limited in terms of entertainment by the events it must cover, and at times did drag on and lose my interests, even if always to soon regain it.  A good film, but not a great film, and one which has not had a large impact upon me.

Final Rating: 7.5/10

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