What we have here is a forensic examination of the events and leading characters involved in the key vote on the 13th Amendment of the US constitution which has it that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction". It is painstakingly constructed and complex, as would befit an issue of such significance.
Apart from a short, brutal opening outdoor sequence depicting the horror of the American Civil War, most of the film’s locations are dark, brooding places which set the tone for an equally brutal but more opaque series of battles being played out in the nation’s political centre. The battlefield metaphor is carried through the film with most of the locations being laced with drifting smoke. The focus is placed almost exclusively on the words spoken and thus the drama of the film is an intellectual one.
Virtually every opportunity for sensationalism is rejected in favour of the study of a nation, lead by an extraordinary politician, in pursuit of democracy. This is multi-faceted material and Kushner and Spielberg accord it the respect and the time it needs for the film to transcend the banality to which it could so easily have fallen prey. That they have succeeded in this is enormously to their credit. Detractors will point at the length of the film and say that at 150 minutes it is exhausting as well as being exhaustive. They will point, too, at its lack of any really dynamic action. But that is the point. Freedom is long time coming and is hard won, practically, politically and conceptually.
There are several marvellous performances and universally competent ones within a huge cast. Sally Field adds a much needed domestic humanity amongst the politics and is touchingly real and sad. Tommy Lee Jones offers a skillfully stolid performance as the redoubtable Republican Thaddeus Stevens and there is some entertaining light relief from the all too recognizable political fixers of James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson.
Presiding over all of them is Abraham Lincoln himself. Daniel Day Lewis is a masterful actor and his casting is a master stroke. The part never allows him to use thespian pyrotechnics. Lincoln was a deeply thoughtful and a very measured man. Day Lewis offers the truth inherent in the man. Though grieving for his war-torn people as well as for the effects it has wrought on his nearest and dearest, the statesman retains his dispassionate persona. That we can see through this to the rawness is a deft demonstration of the film actor’s craft. There is a very brave calmness about the performance.
John Williams’ score, alone in thinking it needs to over-emphasize the drama of the film’s conflicts, disappoints.