Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln takes a small chunk of Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable life and brings to the big screen a momentous moment in American history. Set in the early months of 1865 with the Civil War still raging after four years, US President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), fresh off the back of a second election win is trying to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which will abolish slavery for good from the United States. The issue, which was one of the reasons America became divided in the first place is just as divisive in the House of Representatives where Lincoln and his Republican Party need a two-thirds majority for the Amendment to pass. Through rhetoric, barter, pleading and persistence, Lincoln and his staff try to sway the votes of twenty lame duck Democrats before the session comes to a close.
Lincoln is a fascinating film which treats its audience as intellectual equals and doesn’t shy away from long passages of legal and political spiel. Having studied Politics and University and with an interest in the American Civil War, the film was always going to grab my attention but even those who know little of the period will find some interest in the deeply woven script and fantastic performances.
For me Lincoln is a return to form for Steven Spielberg after the underwhelming War Horse, the dull Tintin and the poorly judged Indiana Jones 4. The film is less action packed than the Director’s most famous work and it rarely feels like a Spielberg film but what the Director provides is a steady and well trained pair of hands who allows the script and actors to provide the flashes of brilliance. The film is well shot and features beautifully executed design but it is the script and acting performances which really stand out. Spielberg acts like a playpen while the actors and script are a baby with chocolate all over their face. They provide a huge amount of entertainment but are neatly confined by the study bars. The script is so tight and wonderfully written that it is no surprise that Tony Kushner has received an Oscar nomination for it. There is never a lull or poor line and it is engaging, funny, complex and educational.
Lincoln features perhaps the best performing cast of the year. Even aside from the Oscar nominees at the centre of the drama, the likes of David Straithairn, Michael Stulhbarg, Hal Holbrook, Lee Pace, Bill Raymond, Boris McGiver, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and Jared Harris are all memorable despite perhaps only having a few lines in some cases. Of these, Spader and Raymond stand out the most. One of the best casts in recent memory is headed by a triumvirate of Oscar nominees, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and Daniel Day-Lewis. Sally Field is strong and has her moments but is in the shadows of the other two. Jones is fantastic as the radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. He is presented with some superbly crafted lines which he delivers with trademark dead pan anger. He is given some of the wittiest lines too and the entire audience laughed when someone knocked on his office door to which he shouted “It opens.” Daniel Day-Lewis is the star here though and to me is an absolute shoe in for the Oscar next month. Occasionally you forget that you are watching an actor as he inhabits the role so fully. His portrayal is recognisable but his own and his stature, posture and features all resemble the President. His voice is both mellow and light but deep and not overly ‘American’, by which I mean it retains some of the Englishness that many educated Americans would have had 150 years ago. Day-Lewis has some incredibly long and complicated passages of dialogue but delivers them with such conviction that I was never bored and could have kept listening for hours.
Spielberg creates interior sets which are full of drifting smoke from both fire and cigar and fit perfectly with the era. The White House is plush and opulent but not overly so and it is cluttered and disorderly in keeping with the state of war in which its inhabitants find themselves. The offices, chambers and parlours are all equally in keeping with the time and smoke filled. Externally Washington is almost unrecognisable to its modern self but fits with what I’d assume it should look like. When reading a book about Lincoln’s final days and subsequent man hunt late last year I pictured the city almost exactly as Spielberg presents it. The film shows very little of the war and even less of actual slavery as the Director assumes that everyone will know how brutal both were. Instead he focuses on the less told aspect of the story and by mostly staying away from the battlefields and plantations he is able to give a similar experience to the characters of the film who themselves would rarely have witnesses the war or slavery first hand. This is a good call as it keeps the audience’s attention firmly on the politics of the issue.
As with any production that deals with an issue on this scale there is always more that could be included and perhaps too much already included but Lincoln generally crams just the right amount of history, speech and politics in so that it doesn’t become overwhelming. I have little to fault the film and will be seeing it again during the week. The over verbalisation of the script may be off-putting to one or two who might be expecting more action but the action on the floor of the house and the President’s offices were more than enough for me. Lincoln is one of the best films of the past twelve months and deserves its many plaudits and soon to be multiple Oscar wins.
- Liam Neeson was attached to the title role for years before finally dropping out as he felt he was too old to play Lincoln. He is five years older than Daniel Day-Lewis.
- In climactic scenes, several characters give yes responces when in fact they voted no in real life. This was done to save embarrassing living descendants.
- Both actors David Strathairn and Hal Holbrook have previously played Abraham Lincoln. Holbrook won an Emmy for his portrayal.