Spielberg’s Lincoln: The final victory of a great man

Lincoln, contrary to its title, is not so much a biopic as it is historical analysis of two of the most important events in the history of the United States — the signing of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution which would ban slavery, and the end of the Civil War.


Daniel Day-Lewis in his role as US President Abe Lincoln

As the film opens, the audience is plunged straight into the horror of the American Civil War. Opening on a bloody battle scene, viewers would be forgiven for thinking this a typical Spielberg film – it’s not.

Lincoln is, in fact, the quietest of Spielberg’s most recent films, with an equally unobtrusive, delicately crafted, totally absorbing performance from Daniel Day-Lewis – the kind that compels you to lean in and pay close attention, neatly defining the charisma of a born leader.

After the battle, the action moves to January 1865 – the fourth year of the war. It is here that President Lincoln fully recognises his opportunity and, much to the frustration of his wife (Sally Field) and Secretary Of State (David Strathairn), decides the moment has come to use the war to abolish slavery.

The remaining screen time sees Lincoln assemble a crack team to cajole those reluctant to pass the amendment while he himself attempts to court abolitionist Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). The film builds up slowly but surely to the point of the vote itself which Spielberg surrounds in tension, despite the audiences’ knowledge of the inevitable outcome.

While the movie as a whole remains a truly visually stimulating affair – Rick Carter’s production design is stunning – Lincoln is not without its flaws.

Tony Kushner’s script, for example, is much too wordy at times, causing the film to lapse in and out of interminable dullness, and the baffling inclusion of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son is a sub-plot we could have done without.

That said, however, Day-Lewis does put in a stunning performance as the nation’s 16th president and, while the film itself is perhaps not as good as it could (should?) have been, Daniel Day-Lewis most certainly could not have done better.

His depiction of Lincoln is accurate, with very little in the way of frills. He speaks with a weak, wispy voice that retains the courtly cadences of the South and, as we’ve come to expect from Day-Lewis, fully inhabits his character, from speech to stillness and distinctive gait.

His Lincoln lives deep inside his own unruly-haired head, yet he loves the people around him, even the ignorant (and racist) common folk, who repay the favor by loving him back.

Likewise, Sally Field is terrific in her role – ably representing a fractured woman tortured by the death of a young son to sickness and facing the very real fear of losing another son to the battlefield.

A film driven, if not by plot, then most certainly by the fantastic representation of truly emotive characters by nothing other than some damn fine acting. If Day-Lewis doesn’t win an Oscar for this, I’ll eat my left foot.

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