Fans of war films should note that, although this film is set during the latter stages of the American Civil War, it is a political rather than a war drama. There is only one battle scene, a fair part of which is included in the trailer, plus one in which Lincoln rides over the Petersburg battlefield after the battle.
The film concentrates on January 1865, but ends in April. At the start, Lincoln has been re-elected President, and his Republican Party has done well in the elections for the House of Representatives. However, the newly elected Republicans have not yet taken up their seats, so a large number of lame duck Democrats remain in the House.
Lincoln wants to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery. It has already been passed by the Senate. It needs to be passed by a two-thirds majority in the House and then ratified by two-thirds of the states in order to be enacted.
Some of Lincoln’s advisers and government colleagues want to wait until the new Republican Congressmen have taken their seats. Lincoln, however, wants the amendment passed as soon as possible.
The war is likely to end soon, which will make it harder to pass the amendment. Some support it only because they believe that passing it will end the war, because the war will then be pointless. They will not vote for it if the war is over. It will also be harder to get if ratified by the necessary two-thirds of states once the Confederate states have re-joined the Union.
Even amongst those who want to abolish slavery, few agree with the views of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). He believes in racial equality and thinks that African-Americans should have the vote. His views are so radical for the time that they risk losing support for emancipation amongst those who oppose slavery without believing in racial equality.
Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863, freeing all the slaves in the states under rebellion, but not those in the four slave-holding states that did not rebel: Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. After the war, the proclamation may be deemed to be a war only measure. It is also uncertain if he had the right to do so. He believes that preservation of the Union requires the abolition of slavery as it is the issue that splits the states.
In one particularly impressive scene, Lincoln gives his cabinet the arguments why he may not have been entitled to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and the potential inconsistencies in his case. He fears that there is an inconsistency between his use of war powers, intended for war between the USA and another country, and his insistence that the Confederacy is not an independent country.
The argument is quite complex, and I would have listened to it at least twice and perhaps three times if I had been watching a DVD rather than being at the cinema. This is not the only scene where complex arguments are put forward; this is not the film to go to if you want to leave your brain at home and relax with a large tub of pop-corn.
Having decided that the 14th Amendment must be passed now, Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), set about obtaining the necessary votes. They are unwilling to resort to outright bribery, but do employ agents to offer soon to be unemployed Democrat Congressmen government jobs.
Lincoln must also keep Francis Prescott Blair (Hal Holbrook), the founder of the Republican Party happy. His support is required in order to be sure that the conservative Republicans from the border and western states support the amendment. Their main objective is to end the war.
The President therefore sends Blair on a peace mission to the Confederacy. This leads to a three-man delegation being sent by the Confederacy to negotiate peace terms in Washington. Lincoln does not want to end the war before the 13th Amendment has been passed by the House, but knows that support for it will be lost if it is known that the Confederates are willing to negotiate.
Lincoln solves this problem by delaying the arrival of the delegation. Thus, he can deny a rumour that there are Confederate delegates in Washington, because they are actually waiting elsewhere in the Union to be summoned to the capital.
On top of his political problems, Lincoln has to deal with family problems. His relationship with his wife Mary (Sally Field) is difficult, whilst his eldest son Robert (John Gordon-Levitt) is angry with his father’s attempts to stop him joining the army.
This is a superb film for about 145 minutes, but unfortunately it continues for another five or so minutes beyond a scene that would have made a tremendous ending.
It is difficult to forecast Oscar winners when you have not seen all the nominees, but if Daniel Day-Lewis does not win the Best Actor award, then whoever does must have produced an incredible performance. He dominates a film with a strong cast. It is a fine tribute to Lincoln’s achievement in abolishing slavery in the USA, which is summed up in a quote from Thaddeus Stevens:
The greatest measure of the Nineteenth Century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.