Abe’s alright, but could use a few amendments

Appearing out of the settling dust of Barack Obama’s recent re-election victory, Spielberg’s Lincoln offers up a well-timed dose of political parallelism so laced with a host of present-day relevancies – from partisan stalemates, institutionalised corruption and arm-twisting spin to the unimaginable prospect of a black man occupying the White House – that even viewers who don’t consider themselves historically savvy will find it eye-opening, provocative and not least worryingly familiar that, despite having imagined the unimaginable, little has changed in the political system almost 30 presidents later, regardless of colour.

The story of the 16th president’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment in order to abolish slavery before the end of the Civil War has garnered praise for its acumen and depth while being criticised for its biased white-leaning orientation. Based on the book ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln’, Lincoln boasts an often overly dense yet ponderous script by playwright Tony Kushner (who previously collaborated with Spielberg on Munich), which gratifyingly dodges much of the saccharin-infused, sentimental blackmail that Spielberg sceptics justifiably fear.

This fear was certainly not alleviated from the outset. The opening scene sees the president informally addressing a small gathering of Union soldiers in a smoke-blown battlefield encampment. Full of fake pathos and an underlying feeling that 21st century political correctness dictated the scene’s inclusion, a black soldier complains of the lack of equality within the ranks of the army. Lincoln remains silent, only to be miraculously rescued from this awkward moment by a sudden outburst of patriotism from a pair of white soldiers who quite inextricably begin quoting the Declaration of Independence, with the ubiquitous Stars and Stripes flapping assuredly in the background. This does not bode well for what is a rather lengthy film, but thankfully this kind of Spielbergism is short-lived, and the film’s subsequent emphasis on characterisation and political wrangling keep it focused elsewhere for much of the duration.

Also, instead of concentrating on the bloodiness of the war, the film shrewdly stays off the battlefield and instead revels in the shady dealing, truth tuning and backroom brawling on Capitol Hill. Intellectual ideology is set forth while traversing the corridors of power, and unlike, say, the overpraised, bombastic political scribblings of Aaron Sorkin (who scripted The West Wing and The Social Network), whose protagonists tend to bleat in a unified, high-speed grating chorus, Kushner has created distinct personalities for each of his true-life characters, and it is here that the film flourishes. 

That Lincoln emerges with a unilateral perspective certainly has much to do with Day-Lewis’s unassuming magnetism. He cuts a solitary, often retiring figure, as though hiding out to escape being fitted with a halo; as the film peaks, the votes are tallied for the Amendment’s passage and John Williams’s orchestral treacle overflows, Lincoln is seen quietly playing with his youngest son, obscured in the gloom of his White House sanctuary. Upstaging them all, however, is Tommy Lee Jones as stone-faced, zealous abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. He is belligerent, tortured and stubbornly committed to the cause, and his cantankerous, saliva-spitting outbursts give the film desperately-needed injections of vigour and verve in those moments when its script flounders under the weight of its content and begins to wither and dry. 

Lincoln is a well-formed and morally ambiguous study of character, principle and politics. It is often overly nostalgic about both the cinematic process and history, but it confidently and even humorously refuses to shy away from the contradictions of its subject matter, and gratefully Spielberg has chosen collaborators who rise to the challenge of offering a contemporary lesson in the ways we have shaped our times, for better or worse. 


Dir: Steven Spielberg; US drama, 2013, 150 mins; Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader
Premieres January 31
Playing nationwide