Spielberg’s atypical film Lincoln wins the day

The passage of time has lent Abraham Lincoln’s distinctive visage more of a comedic air that has been exploited in all manner of films from Bill and Ted to last year’s cinematic addition of vampire slayer to his attributes. If we acknowledge the real Lincoln at all, it is as an austere figure largely forgotten by those of us living outside the United States and possibly even by many living there, despite his undoubted achievements. Is Steven Spielberg the director to re-plant seeds of enthusiasm for the man? After all the filmmaker can be an arch manipulator who rarely allows a story to run free. Is Daniel Day- Lewis, the ultimate method actor really the best person to portray the esteemed President?  While there is no doubting the actor’s willingness to disappear inside roles, there is a risk we will end up marvelling more at his achievements than those of Lincoln. Thankfully Steven Spielberg’s film is not like that at all as it pulls us into the world of a crucial moment in American politics at a considered, detailed pace. Despite the star names, this could be an indie film sparing us the battles to draw us into the dialogue instead.
The President did not even notice his office had no walls
The surprise is that both actor and director reign in any excess to present a film that is more like watching a play.  The opening mud splattered battle is a misleading signpost; more prescient is Lincoln chatting to ordinary soldiers afterwards and really listening to what they tell him. The film’s portrayal of the President is of an avuncular uncle meandering around the White House and beyond offering homespun tales to illustrate his political intentions. While this may appear overly casual or even inappropriate for someone of such high office, we see how it worked.

The majority of the narrative centres around Lincoln’s historic Bill to outlaw slavery amidst the chaos of the civil war. Both issues are interlinked and it seems at times as if he might fail but we also see his wiliness as a politician. The arguments and political dealing are shown in some detail during lengthy scenes in barely lit rooms populated by men with beards of varying styles. There are dozens of speaking parts and in all likelihood you won’t remember who they all are but if it seems a little sluggish at first once matters proceed towards the vote itself it becomes more involving as you realise the full extent of what is at stake. There are some asides concerning Lincoln’s family and the suggestion that the logic he uses politically does not work as well in personal matters.

With very little action and a lot of dialogue there are none of the flourishes you might expect from Spielberg. The film glides on three stand out performances of considerable subtlety. Daniel Day Lewis is once again transformed into another character as different from those he has played before as they were to each other. He looks uncannily like the classic Lincoln portrait but the script largely bypasses oratory to instead show us Lincoln interacting with people of all backgrounds. Lincoln’s frustration with the political classes is as clear as is his identification with ordinary citizens. We see him coaxing and manipulating friends and former enemies, all in the name of achieving his landmark aim. It is an absorbing performance and a half from a remarkable actor.

Sally Field is also excellent as his wife Mary, still grieving the loss of a son and determined another will not join the army. There is a terrifically written and played scene between her and her husband that really brings out the issues in their relationship yet shows us two vulnerable people out of public sight. Tommy Lee Jones portrays senator Thaddeus Stevens who has championed equality for a long time; Stevens’ early powder keg temper gradually becomes more pragmatic as he senses victory and Jones is a powerful presence.

Tony Kushner’s literate detailed script never plays down so you have to run with the general mood even if the minutiae of American politics can seem overly detailed. The triumph of what Lincoln achieved is portrayed even handedly throughout and the lengthy running time seems irrelevant once you home in on the details. Lincoln is not a film everyone will enjoy and is Spielberg’s least showy film in a long time, perhaps ever. Yet in its way it is also one of the very best he has made.

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