In January 1865 Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) seeks to pass the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution in order to prohibit slavery before the end of the Civil War.
When I first watched this film on its release I knew little about Lincoln, and consequently found it a civil bore. Since then I’ve read a fairly hefty biography and on a second viewing I enjoyed it far more. I have fairly low tolerance for changes to history to make a person’s life more cinematic, and while some changes will always been needed, if you can’t keep things broadly accurate, maybe it’s the wrong story to make a film out of of. Lincoln scores exceptionally for accuracy, and this uncompromising focus on detail is commendable.
It could have shown many of the much more cinematic elements of Lincoln’s life, such as how he rose to power from humble beginnings with virtually no formal education, his sojourns to the front line in which he had to be held back from peering over battlements, or his personally going to point out a landing point on a beach when his generals failed to find a solution. His years of unpopularity and the dark times he faced in continuing a seemingly endless war could have made a good Darkest Hour style film.
But instead it seeks to make the passage of a piece of legislation into a two and a half hour film, and is only partially successful. Where it succeeds it’s thanks to Tony Kushner’s screenplay which makes excellent use of Lincoln’s penchant for storytelling – the extensive scenes of negotiation and political wrangling allowing for an unparalleled character study. It also captures his softer side in interactions with son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) and his troubled relationship with wife Mary (Sally Field).
And of course, it hangs on a superb characterasation of its main character by one of the great living actors. Day-Lewis captures Lincoln’s high-pitched voice and ungainly movements without making him comical, his humility, appearing withered and humble, but also his exercise of Presidential authority through his impressive stature. He perfectly captures a character we’ve never seen footage of or heard speak, and the plaudits he received were richly deserved. It also has a new resonance in the age of Trump, reminding us of a time when a man of the utmost dignity was in power, who was reluctant to engage in even the mildest form of skullduggery.
Yet something about it feels slightly made for TV. I’m not sure if it’s the artificial looking lighting, which leaves characters’ faces brightly illuminated in dingy rooms, or the lack of outdoor and establishing shots, but it leaves everything looking a bit fake. Mid way through I was trying to work out why Lincoln reminded me of Dr Zaius from Planet of the Apes. Then I remembered the Tim Burton film where the Lincoln Memorial has been replaced with an ape, and I realised that film didn’t just ruin Planet of the Apes for me, it ruined Abraham Lincoln.
When historical figures make legendary status, it’s hard to separate the person from the myth. Lincoln‘s brilliance is giving us a version of the President we can relate to and understand. But I couldn’t in good conscience recommend it to someone without prior interest or knowledge of the topic the way I could with Gandhi, Behind the Candelabra or The Conqueror.