After the curtains open Spielberg shows his leading man with his back turned to his audience, not unlike Aronofsky’s introduction of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. President Lincoln has an entirely different bout to face though. His country is still very much at war, while he struggles with his cabinet on the decision to abolish slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation is a necessary final blow in crippling the Southern economy, sending the Confederates down for the count. His intentions are multilateral though, as he fights the good fight for equality, progress and ultimately prosperity. It’s altogether fitting then, that we should first meet him on the battleground, hunched over, inspiring his war-weary countrymen, as they feed back to him his most famous of speeches in a stunning display of loyalty. The composition is clear; idealistically, dramatically and cinematographically. The director has rung the bell, now we sit back and let Day-Lewis throw his punches as contenders for Academy-gold toss in their towels in understandable despair.
Rightly so. I’ve never had a clear picture of that towering presence of a president with his remarkable appearance and immortal legacy. Heck, I’ve met him only once, and he was twenty feet tall and carved out of Georgia white marble. He’s here now though, and he came to enchant. It’s otiose and superfluous going into further specifics. This is one piece of inspirational political theatre you should attend yourselves. It’s strikingly beautiful if soberly shot, drily written yet eloquently lyrical, masterfully crafted and endlessly charming – unlike QT’s latest, the word ‘nigger’ is uttered only once or twice. The rest is delightful dialogue after absorptive anecdote, the latter mostly from the lips of the president to the ears of his audience, whatever that audience may be comprised of, and however large.
And Daniel Day-Lewis is, well, Daniel Day-Lewis. In a top hat.
‘I suppose it’s time to go – though I’d rather stay’ (*spoilerish*)
Spielberg addresses Gettysburg without the actual Address, in the very opening scene. As if he wanted to get it out of the way, implying from the get-go there’s far more to the story of Abraham Lincoln than those 272 words. Resisting the urge to launch a soulful set piece on that historic battleground, it enhances its impact – the reiterating infantrymen in admiration of their president, but mostly in awe of his message. As it happens, it sets the stage for a marvellous twelve-second speech later on, in an self-reflective little one-off that has Day-Lewis almost smirking straight into the camera. I wish the director would have likewise addressed the assassination though; don’t show, don’t tell. It’s not explicitly shown, mind you, but Spielberg spells it out for his audience nonetheless. Like in Jaws, he should have left the beast under water and as mysterious as possible for as long as possible. Instead of the events at Ford’s Theatre, we should have gotten end credits – right after Abe’s oracular goodbyes at the White House, after starting out into a long and dark hallway, into that fateful April night. Fade out. It would have made for an astonishing ending. But Lincoln was never that abstruse, never that regal or walk-off-into-the-sunset glamorous. He was plain-spoken, down to earth, approachable. And larger than life.