Film review by John Campbell
I visited the Lincoln Memorial soon after 9/11. It struck me as a living, ‘working’ temple, providing tangible succour to those unloved Americans who came to it. Engraved in marble is Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. Enunciating with rare eloquence the ideals that the Republic espoused (it is a masterpiece of plain English), the words are recited by some young soldiers at the very beginning of Stephen Spielberg’s admirable and admiring film of the sixteenth president’s protracted legislative battle to ban slavery in the US.
The introductory scene is the sort of cheesy set-up that Spielberg excels at and, for me, it was the most profoundly moving moment in an engrossing but strangely dry movie. Perhaps because he was in awe of his subject and fearful of making light of the topic (Tarantino’s Django Unchained is a cartoon), Spielberg has disavowed his instinctive showiness to the point of erring on the side of caution. The emphasis is squarely on the wheeling and dealing that needed to be done in Washington for Lincoln’s controversial amendment to the constitution to be enacted as law – politics, it becomes blindingly self-evident, is the art of achieving what is possible, by whatever means. And all the while the horrendous slaughter of the Civil War, in its fourth bloody year, is threatening to compromise the efforts of Lincoln and his supporters.
Wordy, one-paced and at times needlessly repetitive, the story is nonetheless faithful to the mechanisms involved in what we now refer to as ‘realpolitik’, as the votes of waverers on either side of the house are secured by back-room lobbyists. In pre-production, doubt was raised over Daniel Day-Lewis’s voice and whether it had the stentorian quality associated with the great man – it doesn’t, but it doesn’t matter. If anything, his lighter delivery brings Lincoln back to Earth and assists Spielberg in averting the trap of hagiography, an all-too-common failure of big-budget Hollywood history. This Lincoln, though high minded and folksy, is a stern pragmatist.