Friday, August 16, 2013

Film Notes: Lincoln

Last night we finally managed to see Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln, and well worth watching it is too. It is an unusual biopic in that it does not seek to present a biography of the man, his background, rise to power, personal development and greatest achievements; nor does it indulge in the usual search for the psychological keys in early life that led him to 'become the man he became'. Rather, this film presents a detailed study of President Abraham Lincoln over the four months in 1865 during which he fought to get The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution passed by the House of Representatives. This legislation states 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. In 1865 this legislation was urgently necessary as The Union Army was pressing on Virginia and looked as if they would soon militarily defeat the beleaguered Confederacy. Earlier in the war, Lincoln had issued an executive Emancipation Order. The film explains that the legality of this proclamation was predicated upon the Commander-in-Chief's authorisation to seize enemy property during a conflict. While this had mobilised countless African Americans to fight for the Northern Armies, and weakened Southern morale; it had tacitly endorsed the notion that The Federal Government properly viewed slaves as property. This required full-bloodied legislation to combat, and to settle the issue of abolition finally and completely. Furthermore, Lincoln needed legislation quickly in 1865 before the cessation of hostilities. If the Southern States were re-admitted to The Union before the amendment was ratified, they could refuse to ratify and thus nullify it. As the film makes clear, some Confederates would have accepted immediate peace terms which enabled them to maintain their (very) "peculiar institution" - an offer with which many in the war-weary North who were ideologically committed Unionists, but not abolitionists, would have happily complied. The film dramatically traces Lincoln's determined quest to achieve the Thirteenth Amendment, and the political machinations which ensued, as he sought to gain the required numbers in the house. The scenes in which the passing of the Amendment is carried into law, is a brilliant and highly moving piece of cinema; and is powerful not because of histrionic acting, or a billion-dollar CGI-effects budget; but because the story is real, well-told, and matters. The viewer is made to feel the importance and significance of that scene, and the drama of the wavering Representatives casting their votes, is brilliant.

Lincoln is a film which has gained most of its headlines because of Daniel Day Lewis' extraordinary performance as President Lincoln. While there is no doubt that Lincoln is hated by many Americans for a range of reasons, there is also no doubt that he is the hero of Spielberg's movie. Thankfully, Spielberg and Lewis didn't try and re-make Lincoln into a 21st Century hero, or airbrushed politician. Contemporaries spoke of Lincoln's weathered face, sometimes lacklustre oratory, and shuffling gait. His towering influence on the 19thCentury was not encased within the media-packaging with which we are accustomed to viewing our leaders. Daniel Day Lewis' portrayal is so good that he almost seems to have stepped out of that iconic Alexander Gardner photograph of Lincoln that has an enduring place in the public imagination. There are some other cracking performances that carry the film too. David Strathairn, is excellent as Secretary of State William Seward. He is always a compelling member of a cast and is convincing whether he is chasing Meryl Streep over waterfalls, chasing Jason Bourne around the world, or fighting McCarthyism in Good Night and Good Luck; but he is on especially good form here. Sally Field delivers an emotionally charged, yet more sympathetic reading of Mary Todd Lincoln than many people will have expected; and is great as the vulnerable, complex and compelling first Lady. Tommy Lee Jones has played plenty of daft roles in his career, but his portrayal as the radical abolitionist representative Thaddeus Stevens rightly garnered him a host of award nominations. James Spader, as W.N. Bilbo offers a little light relief from the intensity the film generates; a wonderful intensity which Hal Holbrook seems to be able to sustain with few lines to actually speak; as he plays Conservative Republican leader Preston Blair. Spielberg was brave, but right, to construct this film as he did, and resist the temptation to produce a conventional biography. I did wonder though if the film might more accurately have been billed as "Amendment" rather than as "Lincoln"!

This film is important not simply because of its cinematographical qualities. The story of Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment is a wonderful case-study in the most important dilemma in western political thought; which resonates powerfully with contemporary debates such as US President Obama's tentative moves towards universal healthcare provision. That debate is about the nature and meaning of "freedom" and whose job it is to secure that for people. The Lincoln film contains a key scene in which The President conducts secret peace negotiations with Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens. The script-writer imagines them framing their negotiating stances in the moral categories of freedom. Lincoln is determined that the government will intervene to ensure that slaves have freedom from indentured servitude, while Stephens wants individual states to be granted freedom from Federal interference in their affairs. In a recent debate about abortion provision, it was noted that pro-choice protesters' banners proclaimed women's freedom from government to control their own bodies, while pro-lifers demanded government intervention to protect the freedom of foetus's from the threat of death. Likewise, anti-Obama-care right-wingers proclaim their freedom to not be taxed for the benefit of others, while the left demands that poor-children are given freedom from preventable illness. "Lincoln" is an important film because it asks us to think about what Freedom means and whose job it is to enforce it. 

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