Given how long it’s been since we saw a solid-gold, inarguable instant classic from Steven Spielberg, many have come to feel that the director has lost his way somewhat since his last masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan, releasing films in its wake that were distinctly average (The Terminal, War of the Worlds, War Horse), disappointingly underwhelming (A.I.), and downright awful (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), with only a few legitimate greats in between (Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, The Adventures of Tintin).
Perhaps we simply have come to warrant too much from the world’s most famous director, and the expectations for his Abraham Lincoln biopic were appropriately shifted, anticipating the possibility that Spielberg’s oft-indelicate direction might stifle even the most dedicated Daniel Day-Lewis performance. It’s a pleasure to report, then, that his Lincoln feels absolutely nothing like any recent Spielberg films; gone is the forced sentiment and the sweeping, overly bombastic John Williams score, in favour of a John Williams swell that actually earns its emotion, placed within a dense, thoroughly engrossing portrait of America’s most important and influential President, topped by a faultless, typically outstanding turn from its leading man.
The classic sentimentality Spielberg is known for is appropriated here in an entirely different way that is far more deserving of our admiration and our emotion, opening in January 1865, as Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis) continues to attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution through the U.S. House of Representatives, which would formally abolish slavery. This is as unflinching and grounded a film as Spielberg has made since Saving Private Ryan; it cements the brutality of war in its brief opening scenes, hewing away from the sterility one might have expected.
Working from Tony Kushner’s confidently erudite screenplay, Lincoln is a film that refuses to talk down to its audience; we’re always aware of what’s going on, but Spielberg refuses to simplify – this is among the more literate and seemingly authentic political period pictures in recent memory. It has a grasp not only on its vital history, but the curious personal perspectives of those involved; memorable early on is a scene in which one black soldier simply hopes that 100 years on, his people might have the right to vote. Indeed, we’ve come a long way.
Once context is established, the meat of the film is naturally the passage of the 13th Amendment, which Spielberg details in a suitably procedural – but never dull – manner, noting the shady tactics employed by Lincoln’s team to secure the support of Democrats when voting time abounds. Much of the film’s unexpected humour comes from these slippery tactics, which range from tacitly offering employment, to shamelessly attempting to bribe the dissenters. Meanwhile, in more serious terms, the film draws on some interesting political touchstones viewers may not previously be aware of, specifically a debate over the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the clever political manoeuvres employed to swing the Democratic vote in their favour.
Though rooted firmly in the machinations of the House of Representatives, this is an emotionally charged film as it also examines Lincoln’s personal life, specifically the burning desire of his eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to enlist in the Army, which is a frequent source of tension between him, his father, and mother Mary Todd (Sally Field). Mary Todd herself continues to be taunted by the recent death of her and Abraham’s son William, something which results in several fiery, superbly-acted exchanges between Day-Lewis and Field.
To speak of the cast is to speak of an embarrassment of riches; this is easily the strongest and most versatile cast of any film in recent times, including but not limited to David Strathairn, Bruce McGill, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, Lee Pace, Michael Stuhlbarg, Walton Goggins, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Hayley, Gregory Itzin, Jared Harris, Lukas Haas, and countless other up-and-comers keen-eyed viewers will have plenty of fun picking out. Each performer gets their one moment, and each, without exception, is on top form. There are, of course, three performances that have been garnering the most attention.
Tommy Lee Jones is an absolute knock-out and likely to take home Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens. Get past his hilarious wig – a historically accurate one, mind – and Jones reveals a supremely witty, doggedly determined character who, unlike Lincoln, generally refuses to be pragmatic and is utterly steadfast in his ideals. Several Congressional speeches he gives, spitting uproarious put-downs to his Democratic detractors, are nothing short of hilarious, and for those unaware of his history, there’s a poignant tinge to his character right at the very end.
Sally Field, meanwhile, is supremely affecting as Abraham’s wife Mary Todd, evoking a warm maternal presence and also ably conveying the pained heartbreak of loss. Nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, she is a bracing presence for Day-Lewis, just as he is to her.
And what can be said of Lincoln himself? Daniel Day-Lewis continues to prove himself an unstoppable force of nature, delivering a flawless, perfect turn as the 16th President which avoids the booming-voiced caricature we’re all familiar with in favour of a more buttoned-down, soft-spoken take, which bathes in wry wit and a charming sense of humour. Decked out in the top hat, his veracity doesn’t waver for even a nanosecond; the camera loves him, and Spielberg smartly lingers on him during the film’s many lengthy dialogues, often captured in long takes that are uncharacteristic for the director. In terms of picking an actor to surrender the gravitas and import of the man’s character as well as his actions, there is no finer choice. Day-Lewis will become the first actor in history to win three Academy Awards for Best Actor; you can bank on it.
Through and through, this is a transfixing, hugely surprising film that avoids the clichéd dryness associated with political period pics, and right up to its extensive final voting scene is spryly dramatic even though we know what happens. It’s an affecting and inspiring work that hews far away from the director’s recent output, and though Lincoln’s death needn’t have been mentioned at all, it is dealt with very briefly in a tasteful manner that avoids crass exploitation. For the first time in a decade and a half, it’s a joy to say that Steven Spielberg has crafted another masterpiece.
Daniel Day-Lewis gives yet another performance for the ages in Steven Spielberg’s admirably literate, thoroughly charming biopic.
This article was first posted on January 24, 2013