sat 24/03/2018

Lincoln | reviews, news & interviews



Spielberg's intelligent and stirring biopic suggests that Honest Abe wasn't averse to a few dirty tricks

Folksy man of the people: Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

A rum aspect of the Oscar nominations has been the inclusion of two films that concern American slavery, and which could not be more different: in Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino gives the American slave exactly the sort of empowerment he offered the Jews in Inglourious Basterds – blood-splatter violent and fantastical; in Lincoln, Steven Spielberg is happy to lean on the history books, for a respectful biopic. Lincoln might not be as inventive, or as much fun as Django, but its seriousness and maturity are a welcome alternative to Tarantino’s excess.

Spielberg is no stranger to the subject, of course, having made The Colour Purple and Amistad. This is far superior to both of those films, founded as it is upon an exceptional screenplay, and another phenomenal performance by Daniel Day Lewis. It also feels like a perfect film for the times: the US box office successes of both Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty are indicative of a period in which Americans are much more reflective and self-critical than is customary; aside from its homage to the country’s most revered president, Spielberg’s film is a reminder of the enduring battle between American idealism and bigotry, and between its White House and Congress.

Daniel Day Lewis in LincolnTony Kushner’s intelligent, wonderfully wordy screenplay draws most notably on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin charted four years of the Lincoln presidency, and the skill with which he united politicians from different factions behind his attempt to abolish slavery. Kushner uses an even closer focus, considering just the single month leading to the passing of the 13th amendment, somehow through this narrow window revealing Lincoln’s entire biography and the essence of his character – the reasons why Americans then and now revere him. As biopic it is unusually well conceived.

That month is January 1865. The civil war is almost won, but Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) is far from content. He knows that victory will not be enough to defeat slavery, that abolition needs to be enshrined in law, but if the war ends first politicians will feel no need or desire to pass such a law. And so a man who apparently did everything slowly now feels the need to rush, as he embarks on an intense period of lobbying – using compromise, manoeuvre and skulduggery to bring the house of representatives behind abolition.

Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field in LincolnSpielberg offers a couple of gory glimpses of the battlefield, to remind us of the terrible cost of the civil war, and of the moral conundrum of Lincoln’s tactics, which involve delaying a peace treaty until his amendment is passed. But most of the film takes place in the drawing rooms and debating chambers of Washington, where we watch Lincoln at work as a very pragmatic political animal. There’s something of The West Wing in the behind-the-scenes detailing of the film, the banter and tactics, constant reference to constitution and law, haggling for votes, the film sharing the TV series’ humour and its refusal to patronise its audience. We also get a sober glimpse of the president’s family life, with his emotionally unstable wife (Sally Field, pictured above with Day Lewis), his youngest son, and his eldest (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who is keen to join the war despite his parents’ wishes.

The pain of the nation’s crisis is etched deeply into Day Lewis’s ashen face, and sometimes reduces his voice to a sombre whine. In another remarkable performance, his Lincoln is weighed down by melancholy, yet at the same time is charming and funny (Lincoln’s famed penchant for folksy, yet pointed anecdotes is amusingly evoked) and fiercely determined. The explosions of frustration are quite something, whether he’s riling at the “talentless hicks and hacks” who block his legislation (a phrase that will have tweaked Obama’s attention), or reminding his cabinet that “Blood's been spilled to afford us this moment. Now! Now! Now!”


The star is surrounded by a corking cast, which includes James Spader as a roguish lobbyist doing the president's dirty work in buying votes, David Strathairn as secretary of state William H Seward (one of that team of rivals) and Jared Harris as Ulysses S Grant; Tommy Lee Jones (pictured below) is a typically cantankerous hoot as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical abolitionist who sacrifices his ambitions for equality to Lincoln’s more pragmatic recognition that “freedom comes first”.

Indeed, while some have criticised the film for omitting prominent black abolitionists of the time, they are missing the point; Lincoln is about the complexity of the white Americans’ response. Throughout we are reminded that the only topic on the table is freedom; all sides of the House, not least Lincoln’s Republicans, are wary, nay fearful of black equality. When victory is near, a weary Lincoln tells his black servant, “I assume I’ll get used to you.” His fight for her freedom is out of moral instinct, not empathy or love.

This is an old-fashioned mode of storytelling, focussed on character, dialogue and performance, without the spectacle that Spielberg often offers. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s use of brown tones and chiaroscuro lighting is simply appropriate; interestingly, almost every moment of imagination involves the physicality of the president – sitting before Union soldiers in a manner that conjures the Lincoln Memorial, standing atop the prow of the ship in an early, eerie dream sequence, his long legs and tall hat anchoring one corner of a wide frame as he talks to his telegraph operators in the dead of night.  

Of course Spielberg makes his misjudgements; he always does. He has a brilliant shot to end the film, only to ignore it for two needless sequences; and he’s allowed composer John Williams one of his most trite and manipulative soundtracks, which threatens at times to undo the film’s restraint and guile. As Lincoln might put it, “Buzzards' guts, man!” He did seem to have an expression for every occasion.

Watch the trailer for Lincoln


Spielberg’s film is a reminder of the enduring battle between American idealism and bigotry


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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