Saturday, February 09, 2013

Lincoln: Spielberg's portrayal of an American hero

Abraham Lincoln is a safe subject for a Hollywood political liberal like Steven Spielberg. His portrayal of the 16th American president is quite uncontroversial. The film shows that once upon a time the Republicans as a political party of the commercial and industrial north valued liberty and equality, and that once upon a time the Democrats of the slave-owning south were depressingly reactionary. This must be a sweet irony for Spielberg, a Democrat voter to portray Republican Lincoln who is more in the mould of a modern Democrat. What Spielberg focuses on in the movie is Lincoln the astute politician, willing to play every trick in the political manual, to push through the Thirteenth Amendment which establishes the equality of all races before the law and proscribes slavery or involuntary servitude except through due process of law. That is, when an individual is incarcerated against his will.
Though Lincoln's emotionally tortuous family life is shown with Sally Field playing Mary Todd Lincoln with much conviction, the interesting part of the movie is how Lincoln plays regular politics while adhering to his basic moral vision of a life of freedom and equality. The political cunning he shows is what stands out without him compromising on the issue of slavery. Spielberg maintains the balance between Lincoln the politician and Lincoln the moral visionary. Daniel-Day Lewis who plays Lincoln seems to have adopted the Bill Clinton intonation as he speaks in a thin and persuasive voice. The power of Lincoln's rhetoric derives from the Biblical flavour of his language and a deep humaneness. It is a convincing performance and even an impressive one but it is not dramatic enough like that Anthony Hopkins'in Spielberg's 'Amistad'. Lewis carries the role without faltering for a moment and that is good enough in many ways. What we see is not Lincoln the legendary orator or the mythical emancipator of slaves but a simple man with deep convictions.
The drama in the movie is shown in the House of Representatives where the constitutional amendment is pushed after it has been passed by the Senate. Thaddeus Stevens played powerful by Tommy Lee Jones shows how political beliefs and political expediency need to be accommodated. What makes Lincoln admirable is the fact that he is willing to play politics in the ordinary pejorative sense to achieve a higher goal of principle. That remains an act of virtuosity. It is a lovable film though it certainly is not great cinema. Like Clint Eastwood, Spielberg seems to be moving a simple cinematic narrative to convey what he believes to be an important story.

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