In the winter of 1864, Abraham Lincoln had just routed the Democrats and been elected for a second term as President of the United States of America. During his first term, facing the rebellion of the Secessionist States of the South, Lincoln had used War Time emergency powers to abolish slavery. Though a committed abolitionist himself, Lincoln’s political argument to war-shy Northerners was that the South would crumble and the war would end quickly if it was deprived of its four million strong enslaved workforce. However, Lincoln also knew that such a unilateral war-time declaration might not hold up legally after the war was ended. And thus he determined that the only way to ensure that slavery would never return was to call for an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States – it’s Thirteenth – which would abolish slavery once and for all.
The problem for Lincoln was two-fold. Firstly, the war with rebels in the South had recently turned in favour of the North, and with their people starving and their military supplies running out, moves were afoot by the Confederates to sue for peace and re-join the Union. If that happened before the Amendment passed, Lincoln knew popular support for an amendment would fall away entirely. And secondly, while Northerners had no love for slavery as an institution, there was by no means any common agreement that black folks should be considered equal with white folks. Abolition of the slavery was seen as the “slippery slope” harbinger of things considered abhorrent; mixed marriages, universal suffrage, equality.
And that, then, is the marvellous trifecta of Spielberg’s Lincoln movie – a political drama with the pulse of a thriller, a race against the clock to gain enough votes and persuade the nay-sayers while delaying and denying the South’s peace missions. It’s absolutely riveting stuff. I am always a wreck when the aspirations of the oppressed are finally realized, and this one may me cry. Daniel Day Lewis is Lincoln; it’s the most amazing thing, because you forget almost immediately that this is a cinematic exploit and not some kind of Lincoln family home movie. Sally Field, who I generally loathe (I’m sure she writes crying scenes into her contract) is just astoundingly good as the brittle, ferocious, fragile Mary. And Tommy Lee Jones is brilliant. In fact “spot the famous and talented character actor” is one of the Lincoln watcher’s more edifying games. It’s beautifully art directed and brilliantly filmed. I’ve also noted a lot about the locations – Lincoln filmed entirely in the State of Virginia – and more, about the very deliberate and successful film tourism promotion over at my Film Tourism Facebook page, so flick through some of the stories and find out more about how the State-movie tie in is working.