There is little doubt that the proposal and vote for the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America was one of the defining moments of 19th-century history, if not all modern history. The amendment had the honour of outlawing slavery and making the entrapment of another human being illegal except through the due process of law. At the time, war waged between the northern and southern states of America but, to Abraham Lincoln at least, the battle for victory was almost secondary to the fight for equality. One began to depend upon the other and that was because of the determination and charisma of Lincoln and the men who campaigned alongside him, all of whom could understand that this was not just a decision affecting their own lives, but also those of millions of souls living in the future who, because of the decision made in 1865, would be born free.
Stephen Spielberg’s film Lincoln dramatises the process that brought the 13 Amendment into the constitution of American law, set within the context of the American Civil War, now four years old and fed by the deaths and injuries of many thousands of men, not all of whom are white. The nature of the subject means that we could have a film that is dry and a museum piece but the subject of that amendment means that instead we have a film that is passionate and vigorous.
At the heart of it stands Abraham Lincoln, played so brilliantly by Daniel Day Lewis, an actor who is able to shed his own skin. Lincoln stands tall, a giant among his contemporaries, and a man with great wit and humour. The film suggests that Lincoln has an anecdote for every occasion, a funny tale, while the near madness of his wife Molly reminds us of the tragedy in the president’s life as well as in the lives of all parents who have lost sons during this horrendous conflict. Lincoln is the tree, standing true and tall, amidst the arenas of battle or politics, around whom all the action revolves, all fed by Lincoln’s deep abomination for slavery. He is bolstered in this, strangely, by his political opponent Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) who has striven for the abolition of slavery his entire life.
I love a good historical novel and in Spielberg’s Lincoln I have been given the movie equivalent. The settings and locations are excellent and rich with historic detail. The many characters are lively and heated with debate. The beards, wigs, hair and dresses are splendid in their variety and strangeness. Above all, though, is Lincoln. A man of humour, warmth, kindness and fun. A loving father, a husband shredded by grief, and a president aged, almost before our eyes, by responsibility for his fellow citizens, whether they be white or black, many of whom have fought, died or been hopelessly damaged by the Civil War over which he presides. A man for all ages.
Lincoln has been accused of wordiness. After seeing this marvellous film, I think that can be only considered a compliment.
As an afternote, as a result of this film, Mississippi has now ratified the amendment.