Director: Steven Spielberg
This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie
Early on in Lincoln, the eponymous president (Daniel Day-Lewis) sends a request to radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to support his proposal of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, abolishing slavery with a view to ending the Civil War. Upon receipt of this offer, Stevens declares to his staff, ‘Retain, even in opposition, your capacity for astonishment.’ Many people would have been wary of a Lincoln biopic from Steven Spielberg, especially after the dreadful War Horse. However, Stevens’ advice would be well-heeded before seeing Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln’s numerous depictions on screen, whether portrayed by Henry Fonda or Benjamin Walker, always show him as a defender of righteous causes and selfless in that defence. Lincoln is not iconoclastic, but it does shed some light on a turbulent moment in American history.
January 1865: as a new wave of bloodshed in the Civil War looms, Lincoln is under pressure to negotiate a peace with the Southern states. However, he seeks to do so by amending the Constitution to abolish slavery, to the chagrin to his Secretaries and aides. Lincoln takes us through the ins and outs of the negotiations and bribery used to secure the necessary two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives (The bribes are effected by a troupe of headhunters, played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and James Spader). Is this the end of the image of Honest Abe?!
No, of course not. Politics is a game, both grubby and strategic, and Lincoln’s power as a political figure came not least from his ability to play the game. It’s a refreshing take on this oft-idealized figure. Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team Of Rivals, Tony Kushner’s script is pleasantly erudite. The screenplay immerses itself in the debates and intense discussions anticipating the House vote. The often-antiquated language lends every pronouncement an almost-Biblical sense of power, no less than the material deserves. It helps that these words are delivered by an incredibly accomplished cast.
It is an unwritten law that Daniel Day-Lewis is never less than impressive in any given role. Chances are had he been cast in Anne Hathaway’s role in Les Misérables, he would still have aced it. Original choice Liam Neeson dropped out, but Day-Lewis seems an ideal choice. He has the frame (6’ 1”) and the presence, and his portrayal of America’s 16th president is expectedly dignified and magnetic. The slightly raised tone of voice is different for the actor and from other on-screen Lincolns. His voice is less booming and more reedy than, say, Henry Fonda’s, but then Day-Lewis sticks to his guns and historical sources. Besides, it makes the few times he does raise his voice all the more memorable.
Day-Lewis’ performance is all the more remarkable when you consider the acting talent around him. Lincoln is one big game of character actor Bingo. When David Strathairn (as Secretary of State William Seward) is not bending Lincoln’s ear, or Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln isn’t advising/berating her husband, the likes of Hal Holbrook, Bruce McGill and Lee Pace are getting their few minutes to shine. Everyone gets a moment, but the supporting standout is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. A fervent abolitionist, unlikely Lincoln ally and generally grouchy coot, the role fits Jones like a glove.
The focus on the debate doesn’t mean Spielberg shies away from battle. However, he knows the greatest wars are fought with words, and the intensity of the scenes in Congress is often breathtaking. The anger of the congressmen is accentuated by a dour look; the design is perfect for the period, and DoP Janusz Kaminski paints with every possible shade of blue and brown. There is little to distract from the argument; can war and slavery be ended together? You know the ending, but you’ll still be on tenterhooks to find out.
All this said, Lincoln isn’t perfect; Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Lincoln’s son Robert) is given little to do, John Williams’ score isn’t exactly subtle and the inevitable ending is a little off-kilter. Still, the power of the material and some consummate filmmaking make Lincoln Spielberg’s finest film since Minority Report. Has Day-Lewis’ unshowy performance exposed Spielberg’s restrained side? There’s still the over-arching themes of family and fatherly regret on display, but they’re neither forced nor sentimental, and Lincoln is all the richer for it. If Obama needs inspiration for his inevitable battles with Congress, he need look no further than this.