Spielberg and Day-Lewis combine to produce a worthy, in every sense, Oscar-contender.
Another week, another film about America’s murky history of slavery. Although Lincoln touches on similar themes to its Oscar rival Django Unchained, it is as far from Tarantino’s exploitation Western as you could possibly imagine. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as the eponymous president, and tells the story of his struggles to end the American Civil War and abolish slavery.
A week is a long time in politics, and while Lincoln doesn’t feel quite that long, its 150 minute running time is going to be a sticking-point with some members of the audience. Especially as the film is less an epic biopic of ‘America’s greatest president’, and more a political procedural that spans a mere few months after Abe is re-elected for a second term. Lincoln best describes himself, and the film, early on when telling a young black soldier who has just fought at Gettysburg, “I’m used to moving at a deliberate pace”.
Thankfully, the slow pace of the film gives the performances time to breathe, like a fine red wine. And make no mistake; this film is packed with excellent performances. Day-Lewis is far more introspective and restrained as Lincoln than in his Oscar-winning performance in There Will Be Blood; the subtlety and exhaustion he brings for the part is arguably even more impressive than his turned-up-to-eleven histrionics as Daniel Plainview. The supporting cast are also very impressive; particularly Tommy Lee Jones as the radical who has to compromise his beliefs for a smaller victory in the House of Representatives, and James Spader as the oily lobbyist demonstrating that politics has always been a dirty game of favours and threats.
This is Spielberg’s best film in years, in no small way due to his decision to treat his audience as adults who can follow a convoluted political plot with a host of characters. At times Lincoln feels like an educational history programme with exceptionally high production values. Lincoln’s predilection for solving arguments in his cabinet by telling folksy anecdotes never tires, and one in section he quotes Euclid’s first common notion that “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other”. A lot of credit should go to screenwriter Tony Kushner for allowing the audience to make the comparison to equal human rights without it being spelled out to them.
However, the film is not flawless. Sally Field feels wasted in an underwritten role as Lincoln’s wife Mary, and the role of women in this film generally seems to be one of quiet obedience. It also suffers from bouts of sentimentalism which has long been a problem with Spielberg’s work, and which reach their nadir in an epilogue with more endings than Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. Minor issues aside, this is a welcome return to form from one of Hollywood’s great directors.