In Lincoln filmmaker Steven Spielberg takes a peephole approach to the life of one of the greatest American Presidents, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis). It’s 1865 and with the American Civil War close to a conclusion a race between peacetime and Abraham Lincoln’s wish to abolish slavery from the United States of America puts the President at odds with congress and his conscience.
Spielberg is restrained in his handling of Abraham Lincoln’s story. Gone are flashbacks to youth or any moments where someone in the past might say to a young Abe Lincoln “by golly you might be President one day son”. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner acknowledge that Lincoln is a man whose entire life has prepared him for the political battle that takes place in the film. The reminiscent mood of the character and his ability to convey ideas and feelings via long (and sometimes fatiguing) stories and monologues helps to establish a man who has lived a full life.
Kushner’s script delves into the grubby world of politics and it’s a fascinating study of the methods of persuasion and tactics used by Abraham Lincoln and his opponents to achieve their desired goals. On different levels the cogs of influence are spinning. These moments range from the chambers of congress, the interactions between the first lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) at social functions and the dealings of the men hired to “acquire” the help of politicians. It isn’t pretty and the murky world that these characters inhabit is further solidified by the cold grey tones of Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography. Aside from the obvious political power plays built into the story there is a sense of escalation and urgency for a conclusion to the war and the abolishment of slavery, but one is threatening to trump the other. That constant conflict between peace, equality and freedom wages in Abraham Lincoln’s conscience and there are added personal pressures built into the story that amplify the need for it all to finish. It all culminates in a powerful way giving precedence to the movement of abolishing slavery, a skillful storytelling feat considering the outcome is etched into the American constitution.
From the moment Day Lewis lifts his face to the camera there is no sign of the actor. The eyes that beam back at you and the weary face familiar from only history books and statues is brought to life. It’s a captivating performance that humanises the President with only the slight hint of patriotic grandstanding with Abraham Lincoln’s perceived nobility and intellect. Field errs a little on the side of eccentricity as Mary Todd while James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson revel in their twisted characters perversion of the political system. Adding weight to minor roles is Jared Harris who is an imposing presence playing Ulysses S. Grant as well as Jackie Earle Hayley, Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Walton Goggins and Gloria Reuben. Lee Pace and Robert McRobbie also do a fantastic job playing major rivals to the abolishment of slavery and fill their slick politicians with the right amount of venom for the cause.
The apex of talent in Lincoln rests in every fiber of Tommy Lee Jones playing Thaddeus Stevens, the only character to threaten Abraham Lincoln’s throne of prominence. Stevens is a man burning with desire for equality to become a reality with the thirteenth amendment, but weary of waiting. He’s a man whose body has begun to quit – a wig and cane are accommodating – but his spirit endures against all those who oppose him. Jones delivers a ferocious performance that grounds a lot of the story within his character’s arc and provides one of the most touching surprises of the film.
Lincoln may indulge its subject a little too much but it highlights the road to a momentous occasion with an intimacy that gives emotional weight to political machinations.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies