I am not, by upbringing, automatically pro-USA in all things; I struggle with overt patriotism, which doesn’t come naturally. Religiosity is scary and there are elements in US culture that I regret infiltrating UK life. And yet, over the last few years and with contact with actual US people and ideas on internet communities, I have come to appreciate much more the positive things the US has provided, culminating with a visit to the US last year staying with friends, with a couple of day trips into Washington taking in the Lincoln Memorial, another to Gettysberg and getting a bit more of a rounded view of Civil War history in general.
All of which is a roundabout way to say that there has never been a better time for me to watch a biopic of Lincoln – or at least, as here, a biopic of the end of his career and the passing of the Emancipation Amendment. I was a little wary, based on the trailer I’d seen the week previously that this would be a patriotic cheese-fest but I didn’t need to worry. The movie is celebratory – of course – but it is not a hagiography. Lincoln was a great man but the film is careful to portray him as human and flawed. More than anything, the right man for the time – a careful, conservative lawyer with liberal principles and a firm determination to see as much progress implemented as possible. His intellect and his principles are well portrayed, as well as his slightly odd folksy charisma.
OK, all that done, what is the film about? The Civil War is approaching the end and Lincoln (Day-Lewis), who had made a wartime declaration freeing the slaves in the rebel states, fears that slavery will be reimposed. In order to make emancipation permanent and secure, he arranges for an amendment to the Constitution to be tabled in Congress but lacks the support to get the bill passed. For the support of the conservatives in his own party, he agrees to meet a delegation from the South to discuss their surrender. But, in an agonising complication for his plans, if the South surrenders too quickly, his emancipation bill will fail, probably forever, and he has to employ whatever means he can to whip up support among opposition Democrats as well as waverers in his own party, radical Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), for whom the bill is not nearly radical enough chief among them. Lincoln must balance the principle of ending inequality against an early end of the horrendous loss of life that continues every day the war continues.
Day-Lewis is superb in the title role and Tommy Lee Jone, as the radical conscience that must be appeased, also shines. In fact, acting throughout is really top-drawer because the cast is really, really impressive. In a way, I found this a little distracting, simply because I kept recognising people. “Oh, it’s her from E.R… oh he’s in everything… goddamn! that’s Adam from Girls” (really). It’s also very talky, probably inevitable in a film about the changing of laws and it wasn’t a problem for me but I still enjoyed immensely James Spader’s “Mr Fixit”, W N Bilbo, when he crashed in as if from another film, chewing up the scenery with relish and livening up proceedings for as long as he was on screen.
Immediately after the film, I was really impressed with the film and sufficiently intrigued by so much that was new to me that I looked up a “fact check” article on Slate and was further impressed to see that nearly everything was either accurate, reasonable inference or justified artistic compression. I do like my history honest and my historical fiction as honest as reasonably possible. A few days later and the film hasn’t really stayed with me. Despite the excellence of the acting, there are few real ‘wow!’ moments – it’s solid all the way through and it will, I think, last but it’s a slow burner, more to be respected than adored.
A triumph but perhaps not quite a masterpiece.