Spielberg’s latest offering tells the story of America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, and his struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment which would free the slaves of America, whilst the fighting still raged on during the final years of the American Civil War. Fighting against a prejudiced opposition and the even more radical members of his party, who long for full equality between races, Lincoln deftly manipulates and double deals his way to success.
Advertised more as a biopic of the man, in actuality the film is very much centred around the legal and political manoeuvring which lead to the passing of the amendment. The film plays out almost like a crime caper, a Merchant Ivory does Oceans Eleven affair with all the tension of a gang of rogues pulling off the heist of the century. Even though we know how it turns out, Spielberg’s deft directing builds tension nonetheless.
To say that Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t on top form would be unfair; his Lincoln is a thoughtful, restrained man, a man of true nobility and intellect, trying to do the best for all the men, black or white, of his country. However, I’ve just never been as gobsmacked as many (especially Oscar judges) are about this kind of performance. I was never truly moved or touched by Lincoln himself as much as I wish I could have been, but I will concede that Day-Lewis has done his homework and I applaud him for it.
…a man hell-bent on creating true equality for all men…
The real stars, though, are the men that actually did the legwork; James Spader is brilliant as W.N Bilbo, a comic relief character at heart with some genuinely funny scenes, who plays a crucial role in getting the amendment passed. Sally Field as Lincoln’s tortured wife, still grieving for a dead son and fearing for the life of her eldest as he joins the military, is the soul of the Lincoln household and what little emotion Lincoln portrays is forever on the surface of her damaged heart. And perhaps the true soul of the piece is Tommy Lee Jones as ultra radical Thaddeus Stevens, a man hell-bent on creating true equality for all men. He delivers a truly earnest performance that, amidst the rhetoric and grand moral messages, puts a human perspective on that momentous occasion.
With the good comes the bad though, and what holds Lincoln back from masterpiece status is a somewhat bloated script that drags at times and exposes the sad truth that, though crucial to our history and as the great man says himself “the dignity of humanity”, passing legislature through a meandering system of loopholes and ego stroking isn’t that thrilling on screen, and when all is said and done (and top hats are thrown into the air in celebration) and despite having kept the audiences head just above the murky waters of bureaucracy for two hours, writer Tony Kushner clearly had difficulty in pinpointing a perfect point to end his script. As a result we are left, after the emotional roller-coaster of freeing the slaves of America, with a non committal denouement, squeezing the last year of Lincoln’s life into a downward spiral of interest towards his assassination.
…one to watch but not to re-watch…
A success for Spielberg, to bring a film clearly conceived out of passion for the subject matter to the screen and to portray such an important man without devolving into a complete sycophantic tribute, but a failure in solid story telling and a film unlikely to reach the level of his timeless success of the past; one to watch but not to re-watch.