Of all the American presidents Abraham Lincoln has probably received the most bizarre cinematic treatment of late. From being impersonated with gusto in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely (“Abe fuckin’ Lincoln!”), to slaying vampires in Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Lincoln’s recent cinematic legacy has been colourful. The thing it hasn’t actually done is account for his humanitarian legacy.
However, from the opening shot of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln we know the man is in for deeply reverential treatment. In the opening scene Spielberg lenses Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) from a saintly low angle, as he talks with two black Union (North) soldiers during January 1865 of the American Civil War. It is the latter days of the conflict and Lincoln is determined to bring slavery (still legal in the Southern states) to a close with the end of the war. He needs substantial votes in the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, but in spite of the pressure he maintains a zen like calm.
Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is not a man of great volume, but when he speaks others listen. He has remarkable talents as a storyteller and humourist, which Day-Lewis captures endearingly. Day-Lewis shows Lincoln as capable of maintaining a sublime self-control; this affords him an enormous aura of authority. When he does raise his voice it is a force to be reckoned with. Day-Lewis’ physical transformation into Lincoln is also enthralling too; his tall skinny frame and large hands make him a gentle giant. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a complete contrast to his volcanic menace Daniel Plainview, in P.T Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
Tommy Lee Jones role as Thaddeus Stevens, the abolitionist Congressional leader, is an essential yang to Day-Lewis’ ying. Lee Jones represents the backbone of the cause for abolition in the House of Representatives and as such his performance is laden with an authentic anger. Lee Jones contrasts with Day-Lewis with his hot temper in the face of Representatives who attempt to justify slavery with talk of God. There is a touch of softness, even secretiveness about him though, as we cannot dismiss his dependence on a black wig (which contrasts with his aged face.) Like Lincoln he is endearing, though more fiery than wise.
Spielberg controls the narrative (which plays out like a tense legal drama) and his vast supporting cast with an accomplished touch. His directorial approach is subtle, eschewing any kind of visual excess, yet we know from the opening moments that this is a work by Spielberg the auteur. His work with long time collaborators including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams helps push the narrative forward, without ever forgetting the priority: to showcase Lincoln, the man with the will to sign the Thirteenth Amendment.
Lincoln therefore, is indubitably Daniel Day-Lewis’ show, but this reminds us of the adept directorial talent that Steven Spielberg possesses. It also recalls the heartfelt approach to storytelling that Spielberg has exhibited throughout his illustrious Hollywood career. While Tarantino’s slavery epic Django Unchained sought catharsis through violence, Spielberg’s Lincoln (with its fine central performance) is a keen rumination on the theme of human dignity.