Brian Kelly on the limitations of Spielberg's Lincoln
Spielberg and Kushner marshal all the human and technical resources and cinematic expertise at Hollywood’s disposal in producing an elegantly rendered film. Daniel Day-Lewis gives us an Abraham Lincoln that combines the wily, unaffected “plain folk” demeanour for which he was known and the intense brooding and deep pathos that marked his term in office. He is brilliantly supported by Sally Fields and Tommie Lee Jones in their roles as Mary Todd Lincoln and the Radical Republican tribune Thaddeus Stevens. Together the lowlight camerawork and precise attention to detail give the film a mid-nineteenth century, gas-lamp ambience, a sepia texture like glass-plate photographs. Some key scenes come off affected and overdone, but technically speaking Lincoln is a well-crafted and compelling film.
It doesn’t do nearly as well, however, in offering viewers a nuanced portrait of the living Lincoln. This is a man who evolved under the pressure of events and the wider, revolutionary context from a middle-of-the-road lawyer and stump politician into his role as emancipator in a profound social upheaval. Against the current of much of the “new” history of emancipation—which acknowledges the centrality of slave self-activity to the war’s outcome—Spielberg’s Lincoln pushes slaves and northern free blacks to the very margins of the story, sailing close to an older and once dominant view of emancipation as an act of Yankee benevolence. In what amounts to a snapshot of high politics over a couple of weeks in late 1864 and 1865, the crucial relationship between the slaves’ desperate, persistent drive for freedom and the changing military conduct of the war is left on the cutting room floor...
Abraham Lincoln was a tentative revolutionary in a revolution aimed at consolidating bourgeois democracy in the face of an anti-democratic, slave owning ruling class willing to risk all for its survival. He was compelled by the force of events around him—and against his own inclinations—to lay his hand on the “thunderbolt of slavery” to win a desperate and otherwise unwinnable war.
However slow in coming round, ultimately Lincoln rose to the challenge, consummating the triumph of the American bourgeoisie over a regressive social order. But it was a triumph first conceived by slaves and their allies, and bought with the blood and sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers.
Read the full review here, and see also Kevin Anderson on Lincoln and Ken Olende on Tarantino's Django Unchained