Monday, 4 February 2013


20th Century Fox Films
Now Showing

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, is one of America's most revered leaders, and perhaps best known to the rest of the world as the man who brought about the end of slavery in the US (by virtue of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution) and who died not too long afterwards by an assassin's bullet whilst enjoying a night at the theatre.

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln focusses on the final four or so months of his life in 1865 in which President Lincoln pushed for the passing of the 13th Amendment whilst also attempting to bring an end to the Civil War. But the film is no stuffy history lesson.

The beauty of Spielberg's film, penned by playwright Tony Kushner (Angels In America), is that it makes the political personal and the processes by which bills are passed a fascinating and, yes, fun exercise in the machinations of democracy. The biggest surprise with Lincoln is the rich vein of humour which courses through the film.

There's no surprise, however, in the performance delivered by Daniel Day-Lewis. He towers over the film but not in the bully boy way his Daniel Plainview did Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007). Softly spoken for the most part, Lewis' Lincoln is a thoughtful and considered man (ignore the trailer which has him speechifying to dramatic effect) but equally as elusive (he'll recount an anecdote to avoid answering a question) and stubborn.

He could end the Civil War almost immediately if he agreed to the South's terms i.e. maintain slavery, but the President wants to achieve both aims and, as it's his second and final term in office, Mr. Lincoln is going for broke (President Obama, take note).

That means the man who bore the moniker, Honest Abe, is not above soliciting and "buying" votes from opposed senators, both within his own Republican party and the Democrats (Australians may be taken aback, given modern America's left wing-right wing split, to learn that it is the Republicans who wish to abolish slavery and the Democrats who do not), deploying three negotiators (James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) to persuade the more agreeable, fence-sitting and susceptible-to-inducement members of the House to cross the floor.

In no need of such persuasion is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a Republican who not only calls for the abolishment of slavery but that all men -- black and white -- be recognised as equals under the law, a bridge too far even for the great Abraham Lincoln (one problem at a time).

Jones imbues Stephens with a crotchety warmth, and much of the film's humour, but he also provides Lincoln with one of its truly poignant moments when, behind closed doors and sans wig and political bluster, he bares his heart and soul. Not for nothing has the veteran thesp been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Solid, too, is David Strathairn (as Secretary of State, William Seward), one of many recognisable character actors (including Hal Holbrook and Jackie Earle Haley) who populate Lincoln; with more than 100 speaking parts, Spielberg's film is virtually wall-to-wall facial hair. The rare exception is Sally Field who, as Mary Todd Lincoln, the President's wife, assists in the film's aim of making the political personal.

Mary still grieves for the son she lost to illness and wants Abe to prevent their eldest, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is eager to join the battle from doing so. Some have found Field's performance distracting but Mary's grief (and possible mental health problems; she was known as 'Mad Mary') reminds us that as iconic as he was to become, Lincoln was, first and foremost, a husband and father.

In adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals, Kushner has successfully captured both the public and the private spheres of an historical figure. He also brings history to life and demystifies the democratic process without dumbing it down. Make no mistake, Lincoln is a dialogue-heavy film, written, unsurprisingly, as if for the stage and in the vernacular of the times. It's occasionally hard work but never like homework.

Kudos then to Spielberg who, in arguably his most ambitious film since Schindler's List (1993), stays on message. He manages to keeps his sentimental tendencies in check for the most part, and to rein in composer John Williams, whose reverential but restrained score for Lincoln is the antithesis of his sledgehammer work in Spielberg's previous film, War Horse (2011). Kudos, too, to regular Spielberg collaborator, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, whose sepia browns and cool blues immerse us in this world of men and import.

And it's a world I was happy to be engaged in -- not once did I feel the film's 150-minute runtime -- and could easily see myself returning to. A second -- or third -- viewing could yield more pleasures, certainly from the dialogue alone. But one constant would be Day-Lewis' performance which, like the titular President himself, is unwavering. Both men win my vote.

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