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A crucial moment in history
on 30 January 2013
It's January 1865 and Abraham Lincoln is worried. Not about his voters, he's been convincingly re-elected. Not even about the Civil War, which is clearly heading towards Union victory, although he would dearly like to cut short the slaughter. No, slavery is on his mind. His Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed the slaves in rebel territory and apparently set the ball rolling to end it forever in the USA - but Lincoln knows that after the war this and other measures he took may be subject to legal scrutiny and could be reversed. Not only would this be a great wrong, it would render futile the sacrifices made so far and sow the seeds of future conflict. So he has to secure an amendment to the US Constitution outlawing slavery once and for all.
This film is not a bio-pic about a great man, nor a history of a great war, nor an account of the ending of a great evil. It's about one episode which brings together all three, and in a surprisingly intimate manner. If the Constitution is to be amended both houses of Congress must approve the change by 2/3 majorities and it must then be ratified by at least three-quarters of the individual states. The Senate has passed the measure, the states will ratify, but first it must get through the House of Representatives where Lincoln does not have the necessary votes (but does have some inveterate enemies). Basically the film is about how the gets it through.
That makes the film sound a bit like an episode of "The West Wing" and yes, viewers will detect similarities: the engrossing political lobbying, manoeuvring, and horse-trading are all there, leading up to a dramatic final vote. But there is so much more: the back-cloth of the Civil War with due reminders of its savagery, the wider political struggles, and above all the personal lives of the Lincoln family. We know from his political actions that Lincoln is no plaster saint, great man though he is, but we get some insight into his inner convictions about the greater good that drive him to act as he does, and we see him as man battling with grief, striving to keep his family together and maintain his loving if fraught marriage.
There are many good performances and Spielberg's direction is almost flawless, but at the heart of the film is Abraham Lincoln and ultimately the film stands or falls on the actor who plays him. And here, at the heart of the film we have, not an actor playing Lincoln, but the man himself. Daniel Day-Lewis inhabits the role; he becomes the president, in build, appearance, mannerisms, speech and voice. It is a truly great performance and it's difficult to praise it too highly. It will go down in film history as one of the great character portrayals, and it raises the film to a whole new level.