A six-year-old boy on his first visit to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, could not muster the courage to look at the face of the giant-sized statue of the man who abolished slavery in America. Steven Spielberg's gaze stopped at the hands of Abraham Lincoln. He was quite shaken by the experience.
Later in life Spielberg chose cinema as his medium of expression. Some of the subjects he chose for his movies suggest that on a sub-conscious level he wanted to cope with his fear of larger than life objects. For instance Jurassic Park, Jaws and now Lincoln. Jurassic Park took us to the age of dinosaurs. Not Spielberg's best, but on the recall meter right up there among his body of work. Jaws was a scary movie about sharks.
In a sense the figure of a 'giant Lincoln' may have continued to haunt Speilberg. At another level Lincoln without doubt was a colossus among men. In fact his latest offering suggests that he enjoys handling larger than life themes. Critics believe that his cinematic tribute to Lincoln is a shade larger than the colossus who had frightened him as a kid.
By a strange coincidence the film was released shortly after the African-American Democratic candidate Barack Obama beat his white Republican rival Mitt Romney for a second term as president of the US. Obama may still have become president even if Lincoln had not abolished slavery. The obnoxious practice of keeping fellow humans in bondage would ultimately have been abolished in the US, as it has been in most parts of the world. But Lincoln was ahead of his times. He used to say that "Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally".
The biggest challenge before Spielberg was to turn the colossus called Lincoln into a flesh and blood character, which the audience could relate to. However, his Lincoln is not a simple tale of a lawyer's journey from a log cabin to the White House. The film, which sees Daniel Day-Lewis play the title role, begins with the period shortly after Lincoln's reelection in 1864. In other words the focus of the movie is on the period leading up to the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery.
Lincoln had to fight like a man possessed with doubtful lawmakers. Even his colleagues in the cabinet were against federal intervention for ending slavery, which some argued was a state issue. But he stuck to his guns. The most touching moments of the movie are when he is seen grieving for his late son Willie, coping with wife Mary's mood swings and yet manfully carrying the burden of a bitter and bloody Civil War for the greater good of America, for the greater good of mankind.
Critics believe that Lincoln is "far from a blemish-free paragon" in the movie. "Rather, he emerges as a complicated, even contradictory figure: wise and wily, manipulative and melancholy, formidable and vulnerable, warm and abstracted."
It would be interesting to see how Spielberg's Lincoln would measure up to Sir Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. It must be remembered what Lincoln was to America Gandhi was in India. Lincoln abolished slavery and was assassinated. Gandhi opposed partition but could not stop it from happening. Yet the lunatic fringe blamed him for it. He was killed by a fanatic. Gandhi laid the foundation of a life of dignity, equality and economic independence for the Dalits.
It took nearly five decades for the Dalits and other backward sections of society to have any meaningful role in the political process of India. However, it took nearly a hundred years for the embers of anti-slavery sentiments to die out in America. Racial segregation took the place of slavery. According to an entry in Wikipedia "In World War I, blacks served in the United States Armed Forces in segregated units. Black soldiers were often poorly trained and equipped, and were often put on the frontlines in suicide missions. The 369th Infantry (formerly 15th New York National Guard) Regiment distinguished themselves, and were known as the 'Harlem Hellfighters,". When did racial segregation end? No one can give an exact date; but Martin Luther King was killed in 1968 - a hundred years after the abolition of slavery - for his non-violent campaign for racial equality.
Critics are unanimous in voting the black and white masterpiece Schindler's List as Spielberg's best movie to date. It was based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, a man who risked his life to save 1,100 Jews from the Holocaust. It is not without reason that he is considered one of the most popular and influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. Will Lincoln add another feather to his cap? Initial reviews suggest it might.
However, serious students of cinema would want to know how Spielberg has captured the last moments of Lincoln. He drew his last breath at 7:22 on 14 April, 1865. Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's formidable secretary of war, stood still, sobbing and then uttered the famous line, "now he belongs to the ages."