Lincoln (2012)

Image of Daniel Day Lewis in the film Lincoln.
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Film review by Jason Day of the biographical political drama about US President Abraham Lincoln. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field.

Historical/Period/Epic

 

Synopsis

As Civil War rips his country apart Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, fights his own battle as he attempts to pass an amendment to the Constitution that will abolish slavery and, he hopes, end the war. All he needs to do is convince enough members of his own cabinet to back him.

Review, by Jason DayLincoln poster

A reviewer, particularly one such as I (being frequently disappointed by modern film) should never use a movie trailer as an indication of the quality of the product it is advertising. 

Lincoln is an hilarious example of how publicity people can try too hard to conjure razzmatazz. The ridiculously sexed up snippet I saw had Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) pound his fists on the Oval Office desk as he demands his colleagues (otherwise sitting motionless and expressionless around him) secure him the support he needs to abolish slavery. Dramatic music swelled obtrusively in the background, trying in vain to hide the lack of big drama to this moment.

Perhaps this is an inevitable fate to befall the political drama in the hands of a group of movie Mad Men, certainly for one that follows in the wake of slick, whip-smart and fast paced TV dramas like The West Wing and Homeland.

But when a film’s topic is as dusty as Victorian American politicking, a film will need all the help it can get at the box office.

Spielberg’s grand, operatic distillation of Lincoln’s most celebrated gift to his nation is very much in the old Hollywood style, twirling a slow Virginia Reel around the meaty issue of the day.

It’s probably the right approach to take; anything too modern would put off the history geeks. Trouble is, when you lumber like the title character around dramatising antiquated political protocol you get a slow, drawn-out, slightly tiresome epic that alienates many more.

There is no criticism with the crystal clear writing, for what humour there is the whole cast grasps. There is an appealing seam of dry, caustic and sometimes rowdy wit throughout the piece (when someone knocks at Jones’ door he responds: “It opens!”).

Movie mogul Sam Goldwyn once allegedly advised about an impending production of his to bring it “up to date with some snappy 19th century dialogue”. In the final analysis, this is what happened here.

The modern parallel with the ongoing struggle for racial equality in America today, is there for all to see in Day Lewis’ Obama-esque Lincoln, a recognisably unflappable, cool and serene Commander in Chief.

In essence this is a one man show. Day-Lewis may not make many films these days, but when he does he certainly picks those that will allow him to showcase his remarkable acting skills.

He may have snagged this one to run for a third Oscar (he would end up winning) as it gives him full reign to employ accent, body language, psychological insight. His gravitas, tinged with a twinkling charm, allow the eloquent words to roll over an audience like a pleasant aural wave. If the accent and physical tics lean toward over-rehearsal, they have been painstakingly acquired and are impeccably delivered – for his preparation and hard work alone, he deserved that hat trick of little Gold Men.

This one man band is still sharply reprimanded for grandstanding by a clutch of noisy support performances.

Jones is an actor used to playing bellicose characters (from The Fugitive to No Country For Old Men) so was wise casting as impassioned and wily anti-slavery campaigner Thaddeus Stevens. The film sparks into life when he delivers a cracking political argument that resembles a slew of personal insults.

What is a shame then, in fact almost hypocritical of the film-makers, is that his personal life is glossed over until the last minute. S Epatha Merkerson, as his freed slave lover, is completely ignored until the final scene that shows Stevens in bed with her. On its own, this small moment is beautifully delivered, a proud smile spreads over his face as she reads his cherished Amendment, his life’s work. But the writer and director set this up as a ‘big reveal’ moment, denying us a glimpse of their life together and holding off to give us a ‘shock’ denouement.

Although the female characters are almost entirely sidelined throughout, Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd gives Sally Field plenty of opportunity for verbal sparring and unrestrained emotional outpouring as a somewhat shrewish First Lady.

Spader, almost unrecognisable as a crude, balding, overweight political fixer, also hits a home run.

Spielberg proceeds with due care and thudding solemnity. There are some good cinematic moments (Lincoln’s grainy, scary dream on a boat) but with a little more verve and a little less chat this might have been a better film. For a film centred around a major war, which would have provided some much needed action, we see little of it. As such we have a charming and humorous account of ones man’s dedicated struggle.

Cast & credits

Director: Steven Spielberg. Dreamworks/Twentieth Century Fox/Reliance et al. (12A)
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg.
Writer: Tony Kushner.
Camera: Janusz Kaminski.
Music: John Williams.
Sets: Rick Carter.

Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Gloria Reuben, Lukas Haas, S. Epatha Merkerson.

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