Collaborating for the second time after first working together on Munich (2005), director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner have made a decent film that nevertheless feels overly burdened by the responsibility of depicting historical detail. Set during the American Civil War in January 1865, Lincoln focuses on President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he attempts to abolish slavery in the USA by passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in the House of Representatives. Two major goals of the film seem to be to faithfully document a crucial moment in history through entertaining fictionalisation and to use Lincoln’s involvement as a way of shining some light on the type of person he was. Lincoln mostly feels like one of Spielberg’s straight-faced historical films with a couple of key moments reminding audiences just how good Spielberg is at coaxing an emotional response from the audience with cinematic spectacle.
For most of the film’s running time, Lincoln depicts the political machinations that went on during Lincoln’s push to bring slavery to an end. It is detailed, long and occasionally dry. The historical worthiness does relent during some scenes, especially when a group of Republican Party operatives led by William N Bilbo (James Spader) appear to deliver welcome levity to key scenes. The inner conflict experienced by the Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) when he must compromise his progressive beliefs about equality in order to get the anti-slavery amendment through, provides the film’s most interesting examination of moral and political complexity within the democratic process. While Day-Lewis is remarkably good as Lincoln, the scenes depicting his personal life with his wife First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) and son Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) simply do not resonate the way the scenes with Stevens do.
The moment where Lincoln really impresses is when Spielberg delivers the type of grand emotional pay-off sequence that is usually associated within his spectacle-driven blockbusters. The scenes where the House of Representatives vote to end slavery is filmed with suspenseful intensity that then gives way to immense relief and joy as the amendment is passed. The editing is short and clipped, and every shot seems to begin a few seconds after the action in the frame has begun to give the impression that progress is occurring so rapidly that not even the film itself can keep up. For any dull patch that may have come before, this exhilarating sequence does much to redeem the film. In terms of narrative structure, the previous Spielberg film that Lincoln ends up most resembling is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which while a more consistently entertaining film still provided a dramatic change in pace and style at the end to deliver a long feel-good sequence as a sort of reward to the audience for hanging in for that long. There is even a shot of Day-Lewis as Lincoln walking into the glowing light coming from the window – signalling the dawn of a new era – which is almost identical to one of the final shots from Close Encounters of the Third Kind of Richard Dreyfuss walking into the glow of the alien spaceship.
Ultimately Lincoln suffers in comparison to other films. Michael Apted’s 2006 historical biopic Amazing Grace, about William Wilberforce’s campaign to end the slave trade in the British Empire, far more effectively expressed the political mood of the era as well as exploring how Wilberforce’s private and public life affected each other. In Young Mr Lincoln (1939) director John Ford and actor Henry Fonda used a relatively minor episode in Lincoln’s life to demonstrate far more convincingly and compelling how his personal convictions about equality, justice and democracy influenced his actions.
As one of the most influential, popular, successful and important filmmakers of the past 40 years, Steven Spielberg has specialised in having audiences willingly submit to his masterful emotional manipulation. A swell of music with a slow zoom into a wide-eyed face, and suddenly Spielberg has you sharing the wonder, horror, delight or bewilderment of the character on screen. Moments like this exist in Lincoln and there are moments where Kushner’s witty dialogue shines through to remind us that the participants during this extraordinary period of social change where humans as well as historical figures from textbooks. However, for the most part Lincoln is not a significant inclusion into Spielberg’s filmography despite the noblest of intentions and undeniable cinematic craftsmanship.