A mighty blow for freedom

Steven Spielberg's portrait of Abraham Lincoln brings a key moment in US history to life, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2013, 5:13pm

With Steven Spielberg as director and Daniel Day-Lewis the lead actor, Lincoln smacks of "heavyweight" with a capital "H". But even while taking movie-goers back to the tail-end of the American civil war and US president Abraham Lincoln's Herculean efforts to abolish slavery, Spielberg's film is more than just a grandiose history lesson. It's also an intimate character study, for as the director has stated, "I wanted to make a film that would show how multifaceted Lincoln was. He was a statesman, a military leader, but also a father and a husband and a man who was always, continuously, looking deep inside himself".

Lincoln is set in 1865, just as the Union states from the north are about to defeat the 11 Confederate states from the south after a bloody four-year conflict. As the history books tell us, the 16th US president must abolish slavery before the end of the civil war, fearing that if he didn't, slaves who were already freed might be retaken.

It was Spielberg's suggestion to his Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter, Tony Kushner, that they zero in on January 1865, the month Lincoln set out to push through the landmark 13th Amendment to outlaw slavery. This was, of course, the issue that had sparked the conflict in the first place, after several of the cotton-producing "slave" states rebelled against Lincoln's determination to stop the spread of slavery.

Lincoln may begin with Day-Lewis addressing soldiers with one of those long-winded anecdotes Lincoln loved to tell, but Spielberg's film is not fought out on the battlefields. Rather, it's played out in oak-panelled rooms, from the presidential office to the House of Representatives, as he cajoles, needles and schmoozes opponents (both inside his party and among the Democrats) to come together for the greater good.

Adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin's 944-page historical account Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln would seem a near-impossible feat. After all, watching politicians argue and debate the finer points of the US constitution doesn't exactly sound like cinematic gold dust. But it's here that Lincoln comes alive, thanks not just to Day-Lewis but also to an ensemble cast of the highest order - one that boasts, before this year's awards recognition, 13 Oscar nominations and five wins.

Over the course of Spielberg's 150-minute epic, the president is shown coming into contact with soldiers, statesmen, family members and more. One minute you're watching Day-Lewis go toe-to-toe with Jared Harris as Republican future president Ulysses S. Grant, the next he's courting Sally Field as Lincoln's wife Mary. Still, the film is never more alive than when he spars with Tommy Lee Jones, who portrays Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens. The taciturn Texan, who won his Oscar for 1993's The Fugitive, is like the proverbial firecracker every time he verbally jousts with Day-Lewis.

It's a joy. You feel pretty lucky when you're working with an actor who's that good and that thoroughly prepared
Tommy Lee Jones on Daniel Day-Lewis

"I don't know if very many people are capable of preparing as thoroughly as he does," Jones says of his co-star. "And it's a joy. You feel pretty lucky when you're working with an actor who's that good and that thoroughly prepared." Not that the 66-year-old Jones, whose character is arguably the film's most vital after Lincoln, is a slouch when it comes to his preparations. "I read the screenplay thoroughly, several times a day for many months."

One of the most influential members of Congress, Stevens was a leader in a radical faction of Lincoln's Republican party. He was also chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who pushed tariff and tax policies to finance the civil war. Yet for all his Machiavellian scheming, and his frequent butting of heads with Lincoln, he was also devoted to abolishing slavery. So much so that he chose to be buried (he died in 1868) in the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery, the only resting place in Pennsylvania that would accept people regardless of race.

"It was clear what his function was within the narrative," Jones says. "He's a radical abolitionist. And provides a contrast to Lincoln's political methods. And brings a sense of urgency to the issues, and emotionalises it and intellectualises the issues. Both at the same time. That provides some energy, one hopes." Although Spielberg only briefly touches upon it, many historians believe Stevens was very close to his black housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith, whom neighbours referred to as his common-law wife.

Never having worked with Spielberg, was Jones surprised in any way by his director? "We've known each other for quite some time," he grunts. "I knew what to expect. There's nothing surprising about him. He's just damn good. He's a good shooter. He knows his way around a movie set."

As Spielberg told the Los Angeles Times recently, Jones was the perfect actor to embody a figure as divisive and contradictory as Stevens. "Tommy is not just a subtle solo instrument. There is an entire symphony orchestra inside that man, and I knew this when I cast him in the hope that he would represent the Thaddeus Stevens that history tells us was flamboyant, volatile, radically determined and, to some, even tender-hearted."

Little wonder Jones has been nominated at just about every major awards this year (Bafta, Golden Globes and Oscars) in the best supporting actor category.

Lincoln led the pack in this awards season, with 10 Bafta nominations (Day-Lewis won the best actor prize, but Ben Affleck's Argo took the best film and director awards) and seven Golden Globe nods. Lincoln was also beaten to best picture at the Golden Globes by Argo, but those awards were voted for by less than 100 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press. However, Spielberg's film has 12 Oscar nominations - and the Academy Awards are a far greater reflection of industry feeling, with close to 6,000 voters, many of whom work behind the camera in areas (editing, design, etc) where Lincoln has also been nominated.

As Jones puts it, the craft on the Lincoln set wasn't just from the actors. "It was like visiting history in a way. Janusz Kaminski [Spielberg's regular cinematographer] did such a wonderful job of creating 19th-century light, and the sets, the clothes, the hair and the language were all tickets to ride into mid-19th century America. For actors, that's a lot of fun." With his aiming for period naturalism by using natural light and the flicker of gas and oil lamps, Lincoln may well be one of the most beautiful films Spielberg has ever made.

On a weightier note, "there is something so significant about Lincoln," Kaminski says. "It is a piece of entertainment but it is also a story of great importance." In the eyes of the cinematographer, and many others, then, a vote for Lincoln is not just a vote for a good film, it's also a way for Americans to remind themselves of one of the most courageous politicians in their history, as he led them from the Dark Ages of slavery to a more progressive, emancipated world. You might say it's a vote for freedom.

Lincoln opens on Thursday