Lincoln - Film Review
Steven Spielberg is a mixed blessing. Over the years he has given us some of the most inspired moments in Cinema history (Jaws). At other times he can be intensely sickly-sweet and overtly sentimental and obvious (The Colour Purple, E.T, The Terminal). Either way Hollywood certainly wouldn’t be the same without him.
So it was with some caution that I approached Lincoln his new, Oscar nominated, collaboration with Tony Kushner (Munich) starring the enigmatic Daniel Day-Lewis. DDL is pretty much always a dead cert to be a joy to watch, so there was no fear here, but how else will Spielberg approach the last few months of one of the greatest and most popular American presidents of all time (in a weekend where apparently all I did was watch film about popular American presidents in preparation of the superbowl).
And as the film progressed, to my astonishment, the answer revealed itself much in the way this film does generally; with real class and subtlety. It would be easy for a lesser experienced director to just go straight for the jugular in re-telling the story of the man in charge of probably America’s most tumultuous period. Spielberg himself has been guilty of it in the past. But what we have here is a caring film, filled with wonderful performances and nuances and little details to make the thing feel authentic, and a surprisingly underplayed (in a positive way) narrative of an era with plenty of violent and rich imagery.
This is neither a civil-war epic (though the civil-war continually haunts the backdrop of this film) nor a biopic of the tall man’s rise to power and prominence. It is, as Homer Simpson once famously decried, a “talk political thriller” in the absolute best-sense of the word. Spielberg has made a film which details and highlights the political underpinnings of a drastic moment in American history (the passing of the 13th amendment to abolish all slavery) and how that legacy is made. Honest Abe is represented in a constant reverential light - at times literally cloaked in pure white light from the grand windows of the white house - but it works because he is a monumental figure for Americans; someone who fulfils and represents their nation’s dreams and hopes in every possible way by becoming president and changing society for the better. He’s not perfect; he admits, in a telling moment, that he hardly knows the people who he’s fighting to free, but this humanises him in an affectionate way.
Given the film’s wordy nature, it is perhaps useful to enter with some basic knowledge of the history to keep up, but I feel the narrative is presented clearly enough - with a witty and sharp script from Kushner - that it remains entertaining even if low on action. The scenes in The House of Representatives are a complete joy; beautifully staged and choreographed, we see every stage of the political back-slapping/stabbing process from all angles and levels of the hierarchy. There are many fantastic performances too within these scenes, but an ageing Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens is easily pick of the bunch (who will face a tough contest up against Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd at the Academy awards) whose active role in the narrative (and history) is crucial to its success. Equally, the three lobbyists hired to do the dirty work of the law-passing (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and the ever watchable John Hawkes) are consistently entertaining and smart in their duties.
There are issues with the Lincoln family’s scenes; Sally Field is excellent as the dutiful First Lady Mary Todd but her character’s madness defines her, despite her constant wishing for it not too. Similarly Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who apparently is everywhere these days) is bizarrely overtly theatrical as eldest son Robert in a film crammed full of subtlety (perhaps it was the pressure of acting alongside DLL) until he eventually written out of the script with a brief appearance later on in a blue-coat.
But these are minor is what is an otherwise very enjoyable film. At the film’s end its hard not to be moved and impressed by it’s enormity; here’s a film, actor and director who can pull off its sheer scale and size. I loved the decision to not show the impending assassination; doing so would merely martyr John Wilkes Booth and undermine the film given the sheer chaos that followed in America soon after. We are instead left with (slightly on the nose metaphor) a burning candle, and within it, what Lincoln is perhaps remembered for best; the public speaker who brought many Americans of different creeds together. His death was a tragedy, but it did, eventually, bring the country together and forge its history into the one we know today.