Based partly on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin and set during the American Civil War, Lincoln tells the story of President Abraham Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment which would legally abolish slavery in the United States.
It would have been easy for director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kurshner (who also wrote Spielberg’s Munich) to produce a standard biopic that covered Lincoln’s entire life, from childhood to his infamous assassination. But instead we have a shrewdly placed re-telling of the most significant period in Lincoln’s Presidency and one of the most important turning points in American history. This specific but never narrow-minded focus lends the film a palpable immediacy even as it covers a lot of ground along the way.
The spotlight is even more on Daniel Day-Lewis in front of the camera as it is on Spielberg behind it. It might be obvious to sing the incomparable actor’s praises once more but he undoubtedly gives yet another exquisite performance to add to the list, enveloping himself in the persona of this historic man until he’s barely recognisable and entirely convincing, continuing his astonishing knack of disappearing into his roles and making you forget you’re watching an actor perform. Here his surprisingly high-pitched voice and subdued demeanour means he gives a less forceful portrayal of the titular President than you might expect but the film is all the better for his subtlety. This isn’t There Will Be Blood – although just as much presence is felt here as there was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece – but his performance draws you in different but equally compelling ways. I would be shocked if he didn’t win the Best Actor award come Oscar time.
Day-Lewis is, indeed, the focus of attention but we mustn’t forget the varied supporting cast including key performances from Sally Field as Lincoln’s faithful wife Mary Todd, Tommy Lee Jones as Congressional leader and supporter Thaddeus Stevens and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son Robert, desperate to fight for his country. On top those there’s a veritable who’s-who of recognisable faces popping up here and there including John Hawkes, Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McGill and Lee Pace, to name but a few, all utilised in a beautiful ensemble fashion to compliment the centre stage performance by Day-Lewis.
John Williams’ predictably uplifting score and Janusz Kaminski’s soft, easy-on-the-eyes cinematography remind us that we’re firmly on Spielbergian territory here. Many people had a problem with the in-your-face sentimentality of Spielberg’s previous film War Horse (I personally thought it got away with it) but they might be pleased to know that while Lincoln is partly sentimental it differs from his equestrian epic in that the emotion feels far more woven into the fabric of this story rather than shoved down your throat.
It’s an interesting coincidence that Lincoln has arrived in UK cinemas around the same time as Quentin Tarantino’s deep South-set tale of slavery Django Unchained. They would make an interesting double-bill as they represent two sides of the same coin in a lot of ways, Tarantino dealing with the harsh realities of black slavery while Spielberg deals with the story of getting rid of it, the behind-the-scenes of power and fight for human (and American) rights. In the wrong hands scenes of in-depth political discussion could have been overwhelming and hard to keep up with but Spielberg and Kurshner make it accessible to those not up on their American history while never losing sight of the fact that this was a complicated point in history.
Spielberg tackles this hugely important story that begs to be told in the mature, assured manner only a man of his experience could really accomplish. He manages a film that is at once epic and intimate, sweeping and up-close-and-personal to make you feel like you’re getting the bigger picture while never missing out on the humanity. It serves as an effective cinematic history lesson as much as it does a compelling piece of historical drama.
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Lincoln is released in UK cinemas on January 25th.