Spielberg’s film is about Lincoln, but it is also about now

Barack Obama could not, as a man of mixed race, have become President without Lincoln’s efforts and Lincoln’s success. So what will he do with that gift?

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Spielberg’s film is about Lincoln, but it is also about now
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How did Daniel Day-Lewis become Abraham Lincoln? How does a Millwall-supporting lad from Greenwich, south London, take possession of America’s most famous son and do it in a manner that leaves Yankee jaws dropped to the floor?

Hard work, of course. Study. All the obsessive effort for which Day-Lewis is famous. And then some more. And eventually the accent, the reedy, high-pitched voice, the walk; all of it, he says, came together in a whole.

The accent he worked on at his home in Ireland (he’s a British and Irish citizen), where he listened to early recordings from the areas of the United States where Lincoln had lived, in particular from Kentucky, where the politician was born in 1809. “At a certain moment I begin to hear a voice in my inner ear,” Day-Lewis says. “If I am still pleased with it, I try to reproduce it.”

And that is what he did. He recorded his efforts on micro-cassettes and sent them in manila envelopes to director Steven Spielberg in Los Angeles. Spielberg’s reaction? “On the second tape I heard Abraham Lincoln talking to me. It was a privileged moment. Nobody had heard his voice since he died.”

And what is that voice saying?

One of the most famous self-deprecating comments in American politics was uttered in 1973 by newly installed Vice President Gerald Ford. Ford was brought in to replace disgraced incumbent Spiro Agnew and would soon, everyone suspected, have to take over Richard Nixon’s presidency, too. It was a moment of national calamity. Gerald Ford needed to point out to people that he, an unelected stopgap, would do his best, but expectations should not be too high. So he put it like this: “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln.” And everyone in America knew instantly what he meant and warmed to him because they too were Fords, not Lincolns.

America is a Ford nation. Its greatest contribution to humanity – in my humble view – is the offer of material progress and a sense of purpose and worth to the greatest number of people possible. American heroes tend to be ordinary folk.

And that is the point about Lincoln. He began as a Ford (sorry if this car-talk is becoming tiresome – it’s nearly done), struggling to get elected and struggling to make any money but became something better than a Ford. Ditto America.

So when we foreigners watch the Spielberg film (and hear Day-Lewis’s rendition of Lincoln’s voice) we cannot, it seems to me, quite grasp its emotional force. When Americans see Lincoln, they are watching a film about themselves, about their national myth, about the core of America. Day-Lewis brings us a sad man with a sense of humour, a high-pitched voice and a funny walk. He brings Americans a mirror in which they fancy they can catch a glimpse of their own saintliness.

Lincoln’s greatest achievement, probably the only one we are really aware of on this side of the Atlantic, was his contribution to the final abolition of slavery in the United States. What the film focuses on is the incredible struggle Lincoln had in order to get the measure passed. We tend to think of Lincoln, to the extent that we think of him at all, as an orator who held the nation together in the Civil War. But he was a political dealer as well – a man who was acutely aware of what it took to get things done. People who like to think of politics as a business of merely having principles and following them will be surprised by Day-Lewis’s Lincoln. He gets his hands dirty. He pushes for what is possible.

And here is where Lincoln is at its most fascinating. It is not about Lincoln, stupid! It is plainly and obviously and without any scintilla of a doubt a film about... Barack Obama.

There is a wonderful moment in the middle of the film where someone says to Lincoln that the vote on slavery in the House of Representatives is in the hands of God.  Lincoln grimaces. “If God is using the House of Representatives as his chosen agency then he truly moves in mysterious ways...”

The House of Representatives with which Day-Lewis does battle in the film is a corrupt and sleazy, biddable and dysfunctional institution. There is little real leadership and those who do business with it have no respect for its members.

Welcome to the modern age. Americans’ contempt for their rulers – and in particular for the House of Representatives – has never been greater; nor has the utter inability of those representatives to get anything done. The Congress that finished sitting in January passed the least legislation in history. Spielberg’s film is about Lincoln, but it is also about now!

And this is not just a commentary on the House. It is also a call to arms aimed at the man who, perhaps more than any other president, can claim to be Lincoln’s heir. Barack Obama could not, as a man of mixed race, have become President without Lincoln’s efforts and Lincoln’s success. So what will he do with that gift?

Use it! Get stuff done! That seems to me to be the message from Spielberg via Daniel Day-Lewis. Don’t be too worried about the arm- twisting or the compromises that might be necessary on the way. Bin the aloofness. Shorten the speeches and get stuck in.

The 44th President is at the start of his final term. Lincoln the man is his hero, he tells us. He has seen the film. I wonder if he got the message?

Happy Birthday Abraham Lincoln: a Culture Show Special is on tonight at 11:20pm on BBC2