Steven Spielberg is one of the most admired and best loved directors in Hollywood, and undoubtedly one of the most influential people in the movie business. However, there is a suspicion that his powers could be on the wane, after a number of slightly underwhelming films in recent years such as War Horse and the best forgotten Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Indeed, you arguably have to go back to 2005’s Munich for Spielberg’s last genuinely strong film. For his latest, Lincoln, Spielberg is returning to one of the themes of some of his best work – that of great moral courage in a time of warfare, echoing films such as Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List.
In part based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln focuses on the last four months of the president’s life. The Civil War continues to rage, though it’s clear the Southern rebels are close to capitulating. Meanwhile, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is adamant that the 13th amendment abolishing slavery must be pushed through the House of Representatives, despite fierce opposition from many of his Republican colleagues as well as the opposition Democrats (it’s disconcerting that the Democrats are the bad guys and takes a bit of getting used to). Lincoln must find a way to end the war, while ensuring his legislation goes through, and he is going to need all of his political nous to do so, along with a team of expert persuaders. Hanging over all this is the audiences’ knowledge that Lincoln’s days are numbered, and while he doesn’t know it, he’s fighting for his legacy.
As a non-American, I found the opening act slight confusing, as it assumes a basic understanding of the American Civil War and the American governmental system that many global viewers will not possess. However, it gradually becomes clear and the various pressures pushing in on the President make for compelling viewing. Another early difficulty is huge the cast of characters and concentration is needed to keep track of who’s who and what role each plays in the delicate balance Lincoln is trying to maintain. It’s tricky to keep up, but Spielberg manages the many introductions pretty well.
Almost inevitably, given the number of characters and the various plot strands, Lincoln is a lengthy film at two and a half hours. While it doesn’t drag, there are certain problems – the domestic element is never as strong as the political side, and the plot strand about Lincoln’s difficult relationship with his son (an underused Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doesn’t really earn its place in the film. And despite it’s length, there have been criticisms about the historical accuracy of the film – with complaints that it fails to represent the true complexity of the situation and that it doesn’t recognise the contribution of African Americans to the ending of slavery.
While these criticisms may be justified, there is nonetheless, much to enjoy, especially Lincoln himself. Originally the role was to be played by Liam Neeson. It’s a measure of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance that this is now difficult to imagine, so absolutely does he inhabit the part, it feels as though it must have been written with him in mind. He plays Lincoln as thoughtful but resolute, pacing his delivery as if weighing up the value of each word before speaking it. Lincoln’s common touch was famous and this is captured superbly – some of the best scenes show Abe reminiscing or telling a funny story, and watching him deliver these anecdotes is a delight – his warmth and persuasiveness coming through beautifully. Great credit must go the screenwriter Tony Kushner for this – in a wordy film, there seems to be an appreciation of the power of and a joy in the use of language – the dialogue is excellent. In a large scale, epic movie, it is easy to deal in big ideas and forget the incidentals in speech, but Lincoln clearly has a carefully and painstakingly crafted script.
Daniel Day-Lewis is well backed up in the acting stakes by the likes of David Strathairn and James Spader (though unfortunately not so much by Sally Field as a shrill Mrs Lincoln – particularly a shame as hers is the only female role of any note in the film). But special praise must be reserved for Tommy Lee Jones as the spectacularly belligerent and cantankerous Thadeus Stephens, a resolute abolitionist. Sparks fly whenever he’s on screen and if there’s a worthier candidate for best supporting actor for this year’s Oscars, it’s from a film I haven’t seen.
I went in to Lincoln without high hopes – expecting a worthy but perhaps dull biopic, but my expectations were happily confounded. While the portrayal of Lincoln is respectful it’s not tiresomely reverential as could have happened, and he is a believable character. The scenario is full of tension and the political intrigues are fascinating. It’s a Steven Spielberg film so of course, it looks great, and also it’s acted beautifully and the writing is superb. Whisper it, but Spielberg might just be back.