There are a handful of film-makers that would come to mind, when considering who could make a fitting biopic of America’s sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln. So it was no surprise when Steven Spielberg kept coming back to the notorious figure, flirting with the idea of committing something to celluloid. For over a decade, ‘the beard’ looked at Honest Abe from every conceivable angle and even went as far as to cast Liam Neeson to don the renowned stovepipe hat. But just like the 13th Amendment crusade of the titular figure, time just kept the pressure on and it looked as though Spielberg would never get a chance to take on America’s beloved leader. Luckily for us, the director eventual found a suitable source in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s historical novel ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln’, and realigned his vision of Lincoln with the mega talented Daniel Day-Lewis. The fruit of this labour is a gripping and dialogue filled lustre of Spilbergian entertainment.
Opening on the brutal battlefields of the Civil War, circa 1865, Spielberg is quick to remind us that this is a time of great loss; emotionally, legally, spiritually, financially and physically. This brief warfare may not carry the emotive submersion of Saving Private Ryan or the theatricality of War Horse, but is without a doubt some of the more gruesome violence we have seen from this director in a while. We are distilled to the smoky offices of Washington via a terrific barracks visit from Lincoln, and there we stay for the remaining 120 plus minutes of the film. This is not a film about the life of Lincoln, or even the wider implications of his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment (little attention is played to the lifestyle of those it affects most – black people of America). This is story of one man’s fight to change the state of a nation. If middle aged white men sitting in offices and talking in flurries of antipathy is not your thing, then Lincoln might be a tough pill to swallow. That being said, these men are played by tremendous actors who breathe an unmistakable charisma into their respective roles, and their dialogue (written by Munich screenwriter Tony Kushner) is riveting and sometimes hilarious stuff.
To say that Lincoln is lacking in any drama or action would be a tremendous misreading of the material. In an age where shows such as Downton Abbey and The Wire have gathered expansive fandom, through nothing more than character study, it is fascinating to see this type of writing carried out with an icon as prolific as Lincoln. The temptation to make this a bog standard biopic or to spend more time in the trenches of the South must no doubt have been a difficult one to avoid for Spielberg. Even the likes of Schindler’s List had moments of gruesome violence to fall back on for pacing, horrifying alternatives from reams of dialogue. But Lincoln has none of this; bar the opening battle, a few explosions and one brief sequence at a hospital, this is all talking and plenty of shouting. Exploring the President’s vampire hunting days would have been a much more accessible and visually thrilling endeavour. But there is plenty of excitement to be had in the stuffy offices of Washington.
Like the great man it depicts, Lincoln is filled with moments of fanciful reminiscing. Each scene of shouting and political banter is mirrored by a more tender human interaction or visual historical indulgence. Being the true genius that Spielberg is, he understands the language of film, and manages to create a real sense of expanse outside the walls of Lincoln’s office; Rear Window, this aint. From the cobbled sound of Washington streets to the muddy fields of Virginia, this is the sort of living breathing world that Spielberg has come to cook up on demand. Where many directors would treat such accomplishment as a grand success, Spielberg does it like he is making a sandwich; and what a beautiful flavoursome sandwich it is. On that note, special kudos must be handed out for Janusz Kaminski’s meaty and almost Gothic cinematography, and Rick Carter’s rich tangible production design.
This brings us neatly to the film’s cast. To say that Daniel Day-Lewis is excellent in the role of Lincoln, would be like saying milk comes from cows. This is not only a fact, it is just common expectation. Lewis is generous is his portrayal, choosing to underplay the moments that matter most and chews through dialogue in what could have been the more mundane moments. One can almost see him measuring his performance against others, and instead of trying to stand out, he helps bring others up to his level. This is the work of a master actor, and without a doubt one of the greatest thespians in the history of that art form. The rest of the cast each contribute to the overall impact of the story, with the likes of Sally Field and James Spader turning out particularly excellent portrayals. But the true star of the show is Tommy Lee Jones. His presence as Thaddeus Stevens elevates the film beyond something of one man, and commits the source material to something much larger than any of us could have expected. If one were to state that this is Jones’ career defining performance, then it could be argued as a fair statement. If Jones does not get best supporting actor at the Oscars for this performance, then there is seriously something wrong with the Academy.
As you might expect, Spielberg gives Lincoln a stirring and somewhat simplified edge. Little voice is given to the warring parties of Union and Confederate soldiers, except when they feature in the opening sequence, and for a few brief scenes involving Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) and Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris). Black Americans are seen as almost redundant set dressing, there only to remind us of who Lincoln is trying to help. But in spite of this, it is full of heart and respect for the men who attained the almost insurmountable work of making America a nation of the truly free, or as Lincoln himself says, “Where ALL men are equal.” Visually, there is less of Spielberg than we are used to seeing, which makes one feel that egos have been pushed aside in order to do something with pure intent. This alone, helps the sentimentality feel less orchestrated and more like a concerted effort to tell an inspiring story in the most inspiring way possible – through the rose tinted spectacles of legend. This is a heavy political drama that is more about the men make history rather than the history itself. But it is also a film littered with human emotion and genuine comedy. This coupled with an excellent script and some awe inspiring performances, makes Lincoln the must see film of this awards season.
Lincoln watched with highly anticipated slave drama, Django Unchained might prove to be the best double bill of the year.
Lincoln will be released in the UK on January 25th.
This article was first posted on January 5, 2013