Abraham Lincoln’s second term, with its momentous choices, has been brought to the screen by Steven Spielberg as a fascinatingly theatrical contest of rhetoric and strategy. It is a nest of high politics for the white ruling class, far from the brutality and chaos of the battlefield. At its centre is a gaunt Shakespearian figure, somewhere between Caesar and Prospero.
Spielberg has made a moving and honourably high-minded film about this world-changing moment of American history, his best for many years: I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to see it, and to experience the pleasures of something acted with such intelligence and depth. There is admittedly sometimes a hint of hokum; how you react to the film may depend on how you take the opening sequence in which Lincoln, seated like the famous statue but with an easy smile, listens to two black soldiers telling him how they see the war – a slightly Sorkinian scene that ends with one reciting the Gettysburg address while walking away from the president. It is a flight of fancy, not strictly plausible, but very effective in establishing a mood music that swells progressively throughout the picture.
Lincoln exerted a grip on me; it is literate, cerebral, heartfelt, with some brilliantly managed moments and, of course, a unique central performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. He portrays Lincoln as a devastating master of charm and exquisite manners, skilled in imposing his authority with a genial anecdote, a man with the natural leader’s trick of making people want to please him. He speaks in an unexpectedly light, clear voice that is nonetheless shading off into the maundering monologue of an old man, exhausted by war and personal catastrophes.
Day-Lewis, like Olivier before him, is a master of the voice and the walk: it’s almost as if he has alchemised his body shape into something different: bowed, spindly and angular, gnarled as a tree, exotic and yet natural as his tall hat, often holding the straight right arm at the elbow with the left behind his back: the civilian equivalent of military bearing. His Lincoln is aware that his strength is ebbing; he is on the point of ossifying into a legend incapable of action. He is often seen in semidarkness, his face turned down in contemplation of possible, terrible defeat, or the certain terrible cost of victory: like the Shikler portrait of Kennedy.
His political capital, though great, is a deteriorating asset, and as the civil war grinds on, Lincoln begins his second term wishing to stake it all on rushing through a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery before defeating the South. To get it through the system, he must do business with truculent radical Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), and at the same time entreat conservative Republican Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) for his faction’s votes. Blair’s condition is that Lincoln must swallow his pride and accept, or appear to accept, some sort of secret, provisional peace mission from the rebels in Virginia, a risky gesture that the president must conceal from his trusted secretary of state, William Seward (David Strathairn). Dangerous evasions and compromises are made, but the rebels stay strong; they do not surrender as Lincoln hopes and the awful, unthinkable truth is that he may have to abandon his anti-slavery amendment as a sop to get them to talk peace, end the bloodshed and preserve the Union. Has he gambled and lost?
There are some heartstoppingly good setpieces. The moment in which Lincoln has to raise the flag outside a naval building, after a short, self-deprecating speech that he has written on a piece of paper – kept in his hat – is a superbly managed scene: modest, undramatic, gently comic. Sally Field is outstanding as Lincoln’s wife, nursing rage and hurt that almost boils over as she must bandy words at a White House reception with Stevens, whom she detests: Spielberg shows Abraham in the background, chatting diplomatically but then noticing how Mrs Lincoln is about to damage his chances with a key ally.
On two occasions, we see a flash of anger from the president, when his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to join the army against his parents’ wishes, and when his wife confronts him about the unmentionable subject of their late son, and their unspeakable burden of grief and guilt. Most of the time, Lincoln’s emotions and energies are encoded in the opaque language of diplomacy and politics: when he is openly angry, he seems poignantly weak and vulnerable.
Another sort of film would have concentrated more on these personal crises, but Spielberg has made the right structural decision in containing them and dramatising the formality, the procedure, the outward political ritual on which everything depends. And what a feat from Day-Lewis: the nearest thing a 21st-century biopic can get to a seance.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.