Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field
So, then. The battles have been fought and the war is over. The victor is, largely, Argo. It’s been a scrappy one, not quite so clean cut as others past. Life Of Pi (quite ridiculously) managed to steal some of the glory. And what of Lincoln? Daniel Day-Lewis not withstanding, Steven Spielberg’s long-gestated biopic of the Unites States’ 16th president has proven to be not quite the unstoppable war horse (sorry) that many had laid odds on. And here I come, as late as makes no difference, to throw my two cents into the pot. What of Lincoln? As the big awards movies do their last victory lap in cinemas, is it worth catching old Abe before he leaves the stage?
“There are two things you never wanna let people know how you make ’em,” John Spencer’s Leo McGarry tells his staff in The West Wing, “laws and sausages.” It’s a funny line, but it isn’t necessarily true. That show proved, time and again, that such tales could be the stuff of riveting drama. So it goes with Lincoln, which instead of playing as a sweeping biopic, opts instead for a weighty version of Aaron Sorkin’s White House TV show, albeit an overly long episode in which everyone gets to play in the dressing-up box a little bit.
And what a cast we have here. Day-Lewis of course has, quite justifiably, taken up most of the column inches. Though Tony Kushner’s screenplay and Spielberg’s direction are quick to paint Lincoln as a revered, mythic figure within his own lifetime, Day-Lewis does his commendable best to find the man in what is surely the most frequently caricatured American figure aside from possibly Elvis Presley. He has the appropriate gravitas, of course, but he also makes Lincoln shrewd and wily, folksy even. Never happier than when in good company and able to tell a good yarn.
Elsewhere, Spielberg has lined up an embarrassment of riches to encircle him. Tommy Lee Jones’ bewigged Thaddeus Stevens is a piece of work as good as his turn as Ed Tom Bell in No Country For Old Men, the veteran actor’s previous high water mark. Don’t let that hairpiece distract you. Sally Field recalls Katharine Hepburn in The Lion In Winter, a comparison never more apt than when she is going blow for histrionic blow with Day-Lewis. But behind these three are an army of great character actors from John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson through Hal Holbrook and Stephen Spinella. It’s almost distracting. Look! There’s Walton Goggins. Look! That’s Michael Stuhlbarg. You could make a bingo game out of it.* One can only assume Garret Dillahunt was out when the phone rang.
It’s about as rich an ensemble as you’re likely to find, and the cast prove worth their weight. There are, however, a couple of lamentable exceptions. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, good as he is, is wasted in such a small role. Here playing Lincoln’s son Robert in a handful of scenes stitched in to add emotional resonance to Lincoln’s obsessive drive to get the 13th amendment through the House. Try as they might to add depth, they more often add plodding melodrama. Elsewhere Jared Harris (one of Mad Men‘s true delights over the years) continues to strike bum notes whenever attempting an American accent. His Ulysses S Grant is, vocally, all over the shop. A shame really, as they’re two of the best actors out there at the moment.
The decision to narrow focus to the signing of the 13th amendment into law is a good one. Biopics which attempt to capture a whole life rarely feel satisfying. As such Lincoln might not be the all-encompassing vision some might’ve been holding out for, but it is still grand. Spielberg mounts the project with the kind of stately severity he reserves for his more ‘serious’ projects. In fact, he is more restrained here than he has been in quite some time. Lincoln is quite unSpielbergian (yeah, that’s been underlined in red sure enough), and with it’s cold light and classical framing could have been re-branded a Clint Eastwood picture and few would’ve questioned it.
Whilst making drama out of political maneuvers is done deftly here, Lincoln is definitely too long. There’s no reason for this film to pass the two hour mark. As good as Day-Lewis is, with rousing auditory and warm, earnest humanity, the second hour suffers a little from repetition. Speechifying fatigue sets in. Lincoln’s quest to abolish slavery and end the Civil War is a commendable one, of course it is. Kushner’s screenplay takes every opportunity to hammer that home. It seems deplorable to complain about it, but honestly, enough’s enough sometimes. Just get on with it. It’s almost a relief when Day-Lewis is sidelined for the film’s dramatic climax, as focus moves to the House of Representatives and the vote. Here the film flies.
If only that were the end though. Lincoln‘s biggest flaw is that it bumbles on past this, shoehorning in Lincoln’s assassination at the eleventh hour in a brief series of scenes which seem hurried to say the least. It’s the handiwork of a lesser film, and the only time at which Spielberg drops the ball entirely.
Lincoln is also quite conspicuously a film about white men. Considering it’s subject matter, it would’ve been nice to have heard more from the people whose very freedom was at stake, not to mention the marginalised women whose rights seem of even less consequence than the millions of black people awaiting true emancipation. Though that these voices are going unheard is, perhaps, entirely the point.
These criticisms however are minor when the film is taken as a whole. Comfortably Spielberg’s best work in several years, Lincoln deserves much of the praise that it has already received. It is by and large an exceptionally crafted and involving film. It may not be an essential addition to your blu-ray collection (I can’t imagine needing to see it repeatedly), but it is definitely worth your time. And if that can happen in a cinema before it’s too late, then all the better.
*Note to self, make spot-the-actor Lincoln bingo game