Catherine Clinton on Lincoln

The author and lecturer in US history at Queen's University appraises Steven Spielberg's epic film, on which she worked as a consultant

There is a touching moment towards the end of Steven Spielberg’s latest epic feature, Lincoln, when the American president’s young son, Tad – whose freedom of the White House is a running gag throughout the movie – scampers into his father’s study during an intense meeting. Ignoring the austere atmosphere, Lincoln Jr embraces his old man before running off screen into another room.

No words pass between them and the encounter lasts a mere few seconds, yet this little directorial touch perfectly illustrates Spielberg’s depiction of Abraham Lincoln as both a towering historical figure with great responsibilty, and a devoted family man. It's a familial theme that features in other Spielberg films, such as Jaws and Saving Private Ryan.

Catherine Clinton, professor of American History at Queen’s University, Belfast, was a consultant on the movie. She believes that Spielberg has convincingly captured the dynamics of the Lincoln family circle – from the difficult father-son relationship that existed between Abraham and his eldest child, Robert, to the affection they shared for the matriarch of the family, Mary Todd Lincoln (below left).

Mary Todd Lincoln and Sally Field in the role


The movie’s originality is endorsed by Clinton. She admits to being moved by the vision laid out by screenwriter, Tony Kushner, which presents an intimate side of Lincoln that has passed her by during years of historical research into the Lincoln clan. ‘The tenderness towards Tad, which is portrayed quite poignantly in the film, gives us the human dimensions of Lincoln,' says Clinton.

A graduate of Harvard and Princeton, Clinton is a native of Kansas City, Missouri, and came to work at Queen’s University in 2006. She has written numerous books relating to the American Civil War, most notably, in this case, the 2009 autobiography, Mrs. Lincoln: A Life.

Mrs. Lincoln was praised by the actress Sally Field, who found it of considerable assistance in her preparations for the role of the First Lady in Spielberg's film (above right). The on-screen, unspoken intimacy between the first couple was aided, in Field’s view, by Clinton’s study.

Clinton returns the compliment. ‘I’m most heartened by Sally Field’s pursuit of the role. She inhabits the character of Mary.’ Field’s performance conveys both fragility and a simmering inner strength, the consequence of having lost two children. But equally, Mary Todd Lincoln was politically savvy, possessed of a keen mind and an acid tongue.

In a role originally teed up for Northern Ireland's own Liam Neeson, who famously worked with Spielberg on the Academy Award-winning Schindler's List, Daniel Day-Lewis is nothing short of remarkable as Lincoln himself in this, his first collaboration with the director.

Described recently by the American writer and academic Sarah Churchwell as ‘the best screen performance of our lifetime’, his is a Lincoln somewhat removed from the familiar granite-faced edifice of other dramatic interpretations. 

Day-Lewis's physical transformation in the film is astonishing – witness, for example, his small, halting steps, an echo, as Clinton suggests, of Lincoln’s ‘distinctive shamble’.

No surprise, then, that Day-Lewis is up for Best Actor at the 2013 Academy Awards, having already won at the Golden Globes. Lincoln, incidently, has been nominated for 12 Oscars in total.

Imbuing Lincoln with an agreeable, academic, though slightly bumbling air, Kushner and Day-Lewis never lose sight of the great man’s shrewd legal mind, calculating political instincts and fondness for long-winded, seemingly irrelevant anecdotes. Even within the scheming confines of wartime Washington, the most astute operator was Lincoln himself.

Day-Lewis's high, lilting voice veers from the gravelly tones of previous incarnations, but is probably closer to reality. Clinton points out that Lincoln has often been portrayed as possessing a ‘God-like voice’ yet, she says, various historical descriptions are of ‘a high-pitched voice that carried in a crowd'. She praises Day-Lewis' exacting and 'very interesting research' into the accents of rural Indiana and Illinois, where Lincoln was raised.

Every which way one looks, meticulous attention to detail is evident in Spielberg's film. While much of the action occurs in darkened rooms – though the Chamber of the House of Representatives is brilliantly rendered, and filled with natural light – nothing feels artificial or restricted by budget. In Clinton’s view, this benefits actors as well as viewers.

‘Working on films is titanic,' she explains. 'You only see the top ten percent [of effort and preparation that has gone into producing them], and if you’ve got all the foundation there and you’ve done your work in the base it can be deadly. It can certainly raise a great movie into the public eye or it can sink. That foundation is really powerful.’

In spite of the weighty dialogue and themes, the lengthy running time of Lincoln flies by. Much of the drama hinges on the complexities and tensions of the American political process. For history buffs and American Civil War geeks, there is much to get excited about. Those with a sketchier knowledge of the period, however, may find that some sections pass them by.

Tommy Lee Jones’s Congressman Thaddeus Stevens is a thoughtful portrayal of a radical abolitionist. Bewigged, scowling and scornful of his bigoted colleagues, his thundering rhetoric and dark scheming are offset by some unexpectedly tender personal baggage.

In supporting roles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jared Harris, Hal Holbrook and, in particular, James Spader and David Straithairn make the most of their relatively limited screen time. Gloria Reuben, as Mary Lincoln’s loyal confidante, a former slave, is both affecting and subtle.

In spite of his deep opposition to slavery, Clinton contends that Lincoln was very much a man of his time, and his views on racial equality appear backward when viewed through the prism of modern day society. ‘His pattern of behaviour went against the grain,' she remarks. 'His views were evolving.'

One wonders how Lincoln would have viewed the election to the White House of Barack Obama, another Illinois man. Though not of slave lineage, Obama’s presidency would have been unimaginable in 1865.

Clinton feels that Lincoln would have seen today’s president as ‘someone equally at struggle with balancing his sense of duty to the Constitution, to the electorate. Obama is not the black president. He is the president of all the people. I feel there would have been a certain kinship there'.

Lincoln is on general release now.