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Film Review: Lincoln (2012) 
Dir Steven Spielberg Script Tony Kushner

By Gerry Fitzpatrick 

8 February 2013

There are many Hollywood tales concerning films about the sixteenth president of the United States, the late Gore Vidal made one such tale more famous. Having just completed work on the script for The Best Man – a political thriller about the struggles of a reforming president to secure nomination, the studio suggested that he show the script to the King of schmaltz - Frank Capra. Capra had a problem with the very modern moral dilemma that Gore Vidal had placed his would be president in. The solution Frank suggested was to get rid of Vidal’s ending and have instead Henry Fonda appear in period costume and stove-pipe hat and have him utter the words, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent….”.

Lincoln until relatively recently was still seen in this way as someone whose mythic power could banish history and politics. What this film does is to take up Gore Vidal’s approach and try to give us a Lincoln as real as we should expect to see in the 21st Century. How this is done is largely the work of Tony Kushner, although he does base his script on the political study, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kerns Goodwin (2005) – his technique develops those of Vidal. That was to show intriguing “in the moment” scenes where the president has a series of meetings – actually encounters with his right hand man and fixer William H. Seward  (excellently played by David Stratham) his cabinet and his family. This momentary approach is very effective and involves us in the purpose of the action before it has been fully explained. For example, the scene where a petitioner and his wife ask the president for the restoration of their right to charge tolls – shows Lincoln’s lobbying tactics, the inherent racism of the petitioners and their “normal” resistance to slavery’s abolition. It is a scene to watch out for as it quickly evolves from a “smoke gets in your eyes” routine – a standard approach of old Hollywood – to the stripping away of pretense technique of Vidal-Kushner. 

Fifty years ago in The Best Man Gore Vidal had the chairman of the convention deliver a speech in which he tells the delegates that not only should they elect a radical reforming candidate but should also consider in the future a woman candidate and a black candidate – all done in Vidal’s very dry sardonic way. Spielberg and Kushner reverse this and show the real horror of the political class of 1865 at the very idea of blacks or women being given the right to vote. The horrendous normality of the pro-slavery ideology of the pro-union congress is unfolded as they increase their resistance to the 13th amendment as a peace settlement draws near. But we are not spared the reality of industrialized warfare as we see war aims dovetail with political developments. 

Daniel Day Lewis constructs a Lincoln by connecting each element of Lincoln’s character to produce a dynamic unity of aspects. This is carefully evolved over time by Spielberg’s direction and his editing team. Lewis manages to show Lincoln’s interaction with his family where tenderness does not contradict tension, which is one of the films great achievements. Usually in standard Hollywood scripts family or female roles are written in “opposition” to the stern or stoical public male. The scene to watch here is how Lincoln (Lewis) attempts to tell his son Robert (Joseph Leonard Gordon-Levitt) that he can’t join up because he, “as commander-in-chief will not allow it” and his son’s response which reveals the purpose of the film – how private morality becomes public ethics. 

Lincoln out-lives its expected endings – twice – after the amendment is passed and how it handles the end of the president himself. Long after Django has collected its awards and made its money Lewis’s Lincoln will endure and enjoy classic status. 


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