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From The Socialist newspaper, 13 February 2013

Film comment:

Spielberg's Lincoln by Tony Mulhearn

Patrick Ayers and Eljeer Hawkins gave a penetrating analysis of the Spielberg film 'Lincoln' (the Socialist 7-13 February). They underlined the class forces which triggered the dynamic of the struggle against slavery.

Abraham Lincoln was driven by the expanding capitalist class' imperative to destroy slavery, which was an obstacle to the development of capitalism on a national scale.

These pressures compelled him to change from an apologist for the slave-owners to an outright abolitionist. The film reveals Lincoln's qualities as a leader whose historic role at that juncture was critical.

A key focus of the film is on Lincoln's moral repugnancy of slavery which is highlighted in various speeches and anecdotes he makes to mobilise support for his objective - the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the constitution.

This declares that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

In one such anecdote he relates his revulsion at seeing a boatload of slaves being transported in appalling conditions to the southern plantations.

Spielberg reveals his sympathy for Lincoln by casting the anti-abolitionists as the most repulsive collection of political hacks - on a par with today's weekly spectacle of Prime Ministers Question Time - and his supporters as timid backsliders.

One anti-abolitionist venting his hatred of the 13th amendment hysterically screams: "What's next, votes for women?" The anti-abolitionist benches explode in fury at this prospect.

Daniel Day-Lewis's towering performance makes his Bafta award richly deserved. The film identifies the pressures on a leader brought to bear by hostile class forces. His superlative performance captures these hostile pressures which are refracted through various sources.

From his wife, played by a magnificent Sally Field, who lost a son in the civil war and is desperate for the war to end even if it means cutting a deal with the Confederates to avoid sending her second son to war; from his closest advisors who demand that he retreats saying the time is not right and, of course, from the anti-abolitionists whose hatred for Lincoln is displayed as all-consuming.

Historic role

Lincoln, determined to preserve the Union as essential in developing the United States as a viable state with a prosperous future, withstands these pressures with single-minded determination to secure the vote in Congress. Lincoln uses three unscrupulous conmen who, today, would be dubbed spin doctors.

Without Lincoln the interests of developing American capitalism would probably have prevailed, but it may have stretched out over a longer period.

Lincoln's leadership at that crucial point in US history certainly sounded the death knell of slavery and hastened the development of America as a giant industrial and commercial power.

Inevitably, much is missing from the film. The movement of the masses and the 400,000-signature anti-slavery petition organised by the Women's National Loyal League, for instance. Still, this is a powerful film and a must for all those wishing to gain an insight into the role of leadership and the shenanigans surrounding the end of US slavery.

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