…be as shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves (Jesus)
There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make ’em: laws and sausages. (Leo McGarry, The West Wing)
Some films are a natural hard sell. A film about the passing of a legal amendment in the nineteenth century is one of those. Lincoln has pedigree to tempt – directed by Steven Spielberg, the man with seemingly innate sense of how to entertain, and a lead performance from one of the generation’s great actors in Daniel Day-Lewis. But still. Lincoln is a parliamentary procedural film.
It’s also one with no suspense of the unknown. Even if we may not know how it happened, we all know that slavery was outlawed in the USA, and who one the civil war. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Spielberg was making life deliberately difficult for himself. Add to that, then, that there are precious few directorial flourishes here – it’s a story that’s simply told, navigating the political trading and vote-buying necessary to secure the safe passage of the bid to outlaw slavery. It’s an ugly business – honourable motives; dubious trading favours for votes; half-truths uttered for the sake of a larger goal; families neglected; lives spent on the seldom-glimpsed battle field. It’s also Spielberg flirting with his own directorial Achilles heel – misty-eyed sentimentalism, uncritical praise and the creation of a celluloid monument to go with the stone ones.
That’s how you’d think Lincoln would play out. It doesn’t. Or at least, if it does, it does so in a good way. Day-Lewis navigates Spielberg’s sentimentalism with a steely humanity, lifting the film beyond hagiography to appropriate honour. Maybe I’m just too much of West Wing fan, but I was utterly compelled by the political maneuverings and the moral quagmire of short-term compromise for long-term greater good. It made me question what I hold too dearly which is of lesser importance, and how I might helpfully release the one for the sake of something bigger. I heard that once expressed as not letting your Isaacs – your blessings, gifts – turn into idols. Is that too much? Certainly the Biblical story to which that phrase alludes takes us to the brink of a moral dilemma we dare not even consider, so much does it offend us. Still, though, the extremity helps us see – Lincoln and his supporters in the defining moral issue of his day found themselves driven to the very limit of moral sacrifices. How far is too far? Ultimately history judges Lincoln well, on this at least. It’s much easier with hindsight, though. One man’s moral victor banishing slavery and ending a Civil War can easily find himself on the wrong side of history, a Nazi-appeaser claiming peace in our time.
Lincoln is not perfect, and it flirts with too many endings and slightly too much exposition. The cast in general, Day-Lewis in particular, and the moral weight of what it considers save it, tempting us back to re-view, re-consider and revisit. Ultimately, that’s quite an achievement for a film about the making of a law.
I rated this movie 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com