Vote on a knife-edge

This is my review of Lincoln [DVD].

Based on Dorothy Kearns excellent "A Team of Rivals", this film is wisely focused on a specific period to make it more manageable, namely the final few months of the traumatic American Civil War and Lincoln's controversial decision to pass a "Thirteenth Amendment" giving a blanket freedom to all slaves, rather than try to end the bloodshed by negotiating a peace with the South which stopped short of abolition.

Clearly designed to instruct us, the film proves heavy-going at times: some of the political debates and meetings are couched in complex language of the day delivered at speed and so hard to absorb, some complicated points could have been made a little clearer and some sets are perhaps realistic for the period but too dark to engage the viewer. Spielberg may be guilty of making a fascinating situation unduly dull.

I have heard reviewers criticise the lack of significant black anti-slavery campaigners who were active at the time, and this appears to be a serious omission. The opening scene of Lincoln fraternising with soldiers spouting his speeches struck me as contrived, and the decision to report rather than show Lincoln's assassination at the end also seemed a missed dramatic opportunity, and underplayed the irony of his untimely death before he had a chance to manage the peace.

On the plus side, there are strong performances from the lead actors with Daniel Day Lewis unquestionably outstanding, his high-pitched voice apparently a deliberate choice based on research. He conveys Lincoln's charisma: his "common touch", lack of affectation, penchant for telling stories (which drove some people mad), very broad-minded approach with a desire to hear different sides of the argument which laid him open to a charge of indecisiveness, but occasional flashes of steel. We see something of his oratory and obvious integrity, although he was capable of quite cynical wheeler-dealing, in this case employing shady characters to persuade Democrats (we have to keep reminding ourselves that this was the pro-slavery party) to vote for the Thirteenth Amendment in return for government posts.

Although the film is not as moving as it should be, there are some effective scenes such as Lincoln's son concluding that he must fight, Lincoln arguing with his wife over his son's right to fight in the war or Lincoln reviewing the horrors of battle first-hand. There is a little humour in some of the repartee, although I found the scenes with the three fixers trying to get Democrats to vote against slavery bordered on slapstick.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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