Lincoln: A Masterpiece, Unless You're A History Buff

If you can look past the factual inaccuracies then Daniel Day Lewis' portrayal of the 16th President of the United States will blow your star-spangled socks off...
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If you can look past the factual inaccuracies then Daniel Day Lewis' portrayal of the 16th President of the United States will blow your star-spangled socks off...

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The more I think about it, the odder Lincoln seems. It is an unashamedly grandiose spectacle but one that is sentimental in all the wrong ways: an earnest re-telling of a true story but one so romanticised and silly that the final product is only marginally more believable than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It is simultaneously extremely good fun, a travesty and a cinematic masterpiece.

The film’s lack of factual accuracy will be offensive to anyone familiar with the history: Abraham Lincoln is presented as the founder of the abolitionist movement while true pioneers like Frederick Douglass, former slave turned orator and statesman, do not feature at all; almost everything about the climactic voting scene in which the Thirteenth Amendment is passed is factually incorrect, from the order in which votes are cast to the identities of those present in the room; while the film makes some reference to the fact that Lincoln faced significant dissent during his time in office, it spends more time on fictional accounts of soldiers trying to impress him by quoting the Gettysburg Address in its entirety.

Of course, with Steven Spielberg at the helm it was never going to be a thorough and scientific examination of Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency. Spielberg is many things but he is a storyteller above all else, and he was never going to give a factually accurate version of events when he could tell a heart-warming tale featuring some famous names from history. Indeed, it is less a historical record than a patriotic piece of popcorn entertainment. As long as the viewer judges it on those terms, then they cannot fail to be impressed.

While the film’s first and third acts are burdened by the weight of some signature Spielberg schmaltz, its second is simply majestic: packed with meandering Lincoln monologues which may as well be soliloquies, verbal back-and-forths as gripping as the Rumble In The Jungle and a pleasingly cynical, if crude, portrayal of the American political machine. Not even a signature Nuclear-Family-In-Crisis subplot, predictably resolved before the President is murdered in Ford’s Theatre, can overshadow the dexterity and skill shown by the man behind the camera.

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Indeed, when Daniel Day-Lewis won his third Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role it was hardly a surprise. After all, if one portrays a President, one stands a good chance of winning an Oscar. If one plays a Commander In Chief of the magnitude of Honest Abe and does so with cleverness and flair, a clean sweep at awards season is positively assured. Despite almost all of the credit for the film’s success going exclusively to the actor portraying the film’s protagonist, the real star of Lincoln is its director.

From the off, Spielberg is clear in his intentions and in several places where lesser filmmakers would struggle, he finds inventive ways of communicating information. He skilfully manages difficult changes in tone and skips back and forth between vastly different themes with admirable deftness. Furthermore, Lincoln is magnificently made on every level (bar one). The cinematography, the costumes and make-up and the set design are all perfect.

Lincoln’s only technical failing therefore is its score, which is absolutely insistent on telling the viewer what they should be thinking at all times. Spielberg has a long history of intrusive sound but this is by far his most inappropriate to date. Towards the end of the film I was so desperate for a mute button that I considered filling my ear canals with Choco M&Ms so that I could watch the remainder of the film in peace.

In terms of the actors, BBC’s Mark Kermode described Day-Lewis’s performance as President Lincoln as “monumental in every sense of the word” and that is largely true: one is certainly aware that this is a portrayal with posterity in mind. However, there is more humanity to it than that assessment suggests. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a complex, multifaceted creation: equal parts God on Earth, self-indulgent raconteur extraordinaire and deeply conflicted family man. Of course, much time is devoted to showing us the Greatest Orator Of All Time caricature of whom we read in history books, but we see an equal amount of Lincoln’s dark side.

There are several scenes in which the President, drunk on his own celebrity, simply does whatever he feels like doing, which usually amounts to telling an anecdote of little relevance but of great amusement, but which also extends to committing more questionable deeds like taking measures to end the Civil War without consulting his Secretary of State. One of the film’s highlights is a confrontation with his cabinet in which he explains his moral justification for operating above the rule of law.

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There are excellent turns from Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens – arguably the film’s real on-screen hero – Sally Field as Lincoln’s First Lady, Mary, and David Strathairn as Secretary of State William H. Seward. This horde of Hollywood heavyweights serves to build the platform on which Day-Lewis can bring President Lincoln to life with his customary vim and vigour.

For cinephiles, there are ample opportunities to feel smug as you recognise a plethora of indie stars getting valuable screen time in a blockbuster. The lobbying task force of William N. Bilbo (played by James Spader), Richard Schell (Tim Blake-Nelson) and Colonel Robert Latham (John Hawkes) provides the film’s comic relief in two ways: firstly in the sense that their capers trying to persuade disgruntled Democrats to vote for the Thirteenth Amendment are genuinely amusing; secondly in that watching That Guy From Crash, That Guy From O Brother, Where Art Thou? and That Guy From Winter’s Bone running around dressed as nineteenth century errand boys is tremendous fun in and of itself.

And that is what Lincoln boils down to, essentially: fun. There is more than enough gristle to chew on if one is so inclined but it is best to treat it as simple light entertainment. After all, the real facts remain unchanged and have been available for any interested observer to pore over in any good library or online encyclopaedia for years.

It is just a shame that the film does not have any black heroes. At the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in 1876, Douglass called Lincoln “the white man's President”. If that is true then Lincoln is the white man’s paean to said President.