20 February 2013

Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’

It’s not often that a film is so dominated by the performance of one actor. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln not only occupies the screen for much of the film’s 150 minutes, but his characterisation is spell-binding, though at one point the pitch of his voice and his accent were, I thought, uncannily reminiscent of Bill Clinton, and his performance fully deserves its prizes. The scope Lincoln offers for strong male parts is fully exploited, like Jackie Earle Haley’s Alexander Stephens. Sadly, Sally Field in the main female part of Mary Todd Lincoln falls a little short of the general high standard.

Mid-19th century America, whether in Washington or on the battlefield, and Lincoln’s political machinations by lamplight are so well-realised as to absorb all the viewer’s attention, but the story of the securing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution during the closing months of the American civil war is thought-provoking as well. Non-Americans may well benefit from reading the Wikipedia entry on the History of the US Republican Party. I certainly hadn’t appreciated the GOP’s determination to prevent the slave owners from establishing themselves in the new Territories. And what I’ve read so far about Reconstruction seems to underline that it was hardly directed at establishing the rights of African Americans. What happened after the Civil War that it should take a century for significant progress? Perhaps it had something to do with the huge waves of white immigration later in the 19th century, the emergence of the USA as a world power under the WASP elite, Prohibition? Perhaps a kind US reader of this post will recommend some further reading. Not for the first time though, I couldn’t help thinking that only a wealthy country can afford a political system with a Congress and Senate so often at loggerheads.

The film ends on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, although John Wilkes Booth does not appear. Some US readers may be intrigued to know that Cherie Booth, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is one of the great-great-great grandchildren of John Wilkes Booth’s uncle, Sidney Booth. So, of course, are dozens of other people – Cherie’s father alone had eight daughters!

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