Lincoln is a portrait that is ready and complete at the start of the film. The rest of this 150-minute movie is a series of touch-up strokes with a very light brush. It deals with the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, detailing the political and legislative process by which the thirteenth amendment to the US Constitution, making slavery illegal, was passed.
What is interesting about the film is the way it shows how getting an amendment passed in the US House of Representatives is as openly manipulated by wheeling and dealing politicians as it is in India’s state and central legislatures today. Lincoln has less than a month to get the amendment passed in early 1865. If he doesn’t do it quickly, the Southern States—whose economy revolves around slavery and who are returning to the Union after the Civil War—will discard it.
Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) knows this and uses every means of persuasion to get the necessary votes. Some of these include promises of office in government, but others are less savoury variants of corruption. He buys votes, and Spielberg’s task is to make Lincoln look majestic and magisterial even while he is doing this. History—the emancipation of African-Americans in the most significant amendment to the US Constitution—is paramount, and in that service, even contemptible political trading is acceptable.
Does this polemic work? Amazingly, such is the terrific impersonation of Lincoln by Day-Lewis and such is the painterly light by which his craggy face is lit by the cinematographer that it does. The deep empathy you feel is for an unhappy man—torn apart by war and miserable in his marriage—who rises above his personal life and office to affirm the indivisible principle that all men are created equal.
Lincoln is not a great film, but it is a well-made one.