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A vote for Honest Abe

Lincoln is that rare thing, a historical movie with more than passing acquaintance with the truth. There are aspects of dramatic licence, but I haven't found much to quibble over in reading the book on which it is partly based, Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, published in 2005.

The book was a bestseller and the film scores points for staying close to what we know of the 16th president of the US, in all his complexity.

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Lincoln is a revealing drama that focuses on the 16th President's tumultuous final months in office. Stars Academy Award winner Daniel Day Lewis as the President.

The action concentrates on the last four months of his life. We might have expected the dramatic climax to be his mortal wounding in Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, but not so. This is a film about politics and Lincoln's mastery of it, not simply the tragedy of his death.

Instead, the script by Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich) tells the story of the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery.

In Goodwin's 754-page history, this event occupies five pages. It was always going to be an important part of the movie, but Steven Spielberg and Kushner have said in interviews that it took most of seven years to realise that this should be their story.

Kushner resisted the idea: if they were going to make the first important movie about Abraham Lincoln in 70 years, he did not want it to be about a vote in the House of Representatives at which Lincoln was not even present.


The fact that it succeeds as drama as well as history is testament to how well they have done their job. Everything about the film is classy, considered and sober. Kushner's script brings rich musical language back to the fore in a way that American movies had largely forsaken. Spielberg, prone to overstatement and histrionics in his earlier ''serious'' films, adapts his style to the man he is portraying so that the film becomes almost modest in tone. He uses a John Williams score but keeps it in check. There are few what I might call ''violin'' moments.

Above all, Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln gives a performance as good as he ever put on film. His Lincoln is tall and tousled and bent over with the weight of melancholy responsibility in the fourth year of the Civil War. He is quietly spoken, gently humorous, kind to strangers and staff, and a loving father to his two remaining sons Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Tad (Gulliver McGrath).

His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), has been grieving for three years since the death of their son, Willie. She is sour on Abe, the war and the marriage. Her depression echoes the cries of hundreds of thousands more across the country.

In January 1865, Lincoln has just been re-elected. The war is all but won, Secretary of State William Henry Seward (David Strathairn) tells him, so why in God's name do you want to press the 13th Amendment, after it was rebuffed 10 months earlier in the House?

To get the necessary two-thirds majority, they will need 20 Democratic votes and they can't even rely on their own Republican votes. If the south surrenders before the amendment is passed, Lincoln knows he will never be able to permanently ban slavery.

Seward hires a secret dirty tricks team to get the votes by any means necessary. A Confederate delegation comes north to talk peace; Lincoln connives to slow them down. In effect, he is prepared to prolong the war to end slavery - a terrible choice.

The film is superbly constructed as political theatre. Tommy Lee Jones dons a ridiculous wig to play the terrifying moralist Thaddeus Stevens, an arch-abolitionist Republican who regards Lincoln as a wishy-washy compromiser. Stevens's role has been developed for the movie as he is barely mentioned in the book, but there is a good reason, apart from the obvious fact that Jones makes any movie better. Stevens embodies the film's greatest political compromise: for the greatest good.

This is a film about the worth of politics, not the disappointment of it. That is a radical approach in our times, when cynicism about the political process is so rife. Lincoln is a superb illustration of why politics matters.

At the same time, Kushner's language makes clear that modern politics has lost some of the oratory that was once common. This craggy prairie lawyer was capable of Shakespearean rhetoric, and Lincoln isn't the only one with the gift.

From a director who has almost never favoured the word over the image, Lincoln is a major departure. It's a chamber piece, bookended with brief, horrific scenes of war.

Most of it never leaves the candlelit confines of Lincoln's folksy White House, and yet it is a sprawling story through the power of its ideas. Even with one too many endings, it's among Spielberg's best work.

Twitter: @ptbyrnes


Directed by Steven Spielberg

Rated M, 153 minutes