(Steven Spielberg, 2012)
Reviewed by Dave Lancaster
Summary: Daniel Day-Lewis' incredible performance anchors Spielberg's wordy political drama allowing the narrative an access point to reign supreme over the masses.
'Lincoln' could well be the least 'Spielberg'-esque film Steven Spielberg has ever made. Gone are the sweeping vistas, epic action scenes and even John Williams' score is talked down from the usual dizzy melodic heights, but that's not to say that 'Lincoln' is dull, even when the majority of the scenes are interiors of people in wigs and suits talking about American politics.
Tony Kushner's script largely dispenses with backstory, instead focussing solely on the last four months of Lincoln's presidency - a time when the president (Day-Lewis) worked hard to end the American civil war while abolishing slavery just before he got assassinated. He's got a haunted, depressed wife (Sally Field) to care for and confide with, just as his son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is returning home determined to enlist in the war that Lincoln is prolonging just enough to pass his historical 13th amendment to end slavery.
This is no family drama; there are a lot more characters to contend with. Lincoln's main confidant William Seward (David Strathairn) hires smarmy WN Bilbo (James Spader) and his associates (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) to secure some votes from the opposition even if it means playing dirty, prompting a great scene in which Spader, Lee Nelson and Hawkes perch themselves from the upper seats of the United States House of Representatives observing how politicians squirm at proposed bills, knowing which ones would be easily led and which are off limits before they move in for the real hunt.
During these all-important moments set in the Constitution debates, Tommy Lee Jones does his best work in years as abolitionist Republican Thaddeus Stevens - a man of secrets, passion and biting wit forever in danger of falling on his own sword but he'd set himself up for the fall just to get a point across to an audience.
Jackie Earle Haley plays the leader of a Confederate delegation heading towards Washington to negotiate peace but that'll never happen if he knows about the plan to abolish slavery - remember that slaves were dealt with as a commodity and such a move would effectively strangle half of the civil war's economy. The military angle is portrayed by a splendid Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. There are plenty more angles too, all populated by excellent actors whose familiarity and grace helps make the complex ideas much easier to follow, but it's Lincoln (and indeed Day-Lewis) who so masterfully guides his audience towards their places on the domino board with his warm stories, simmering passion and even jokes before sitting back to watch the pieces fall with such stately intellect.
More moments of Lincoln on his own would've gone down well, but instead we get to see a man of the people turning the cogs with brave precision - there are only a few scenes of Lincoln at his most vulnerable and the assassination isn't even one of them. Instead he's seen as a fixer who glides through society almost like a ghost, willing people to change their minds with his stature and authority.
There would be a temptation to make this an all-American flag waving epic, but this is a true political drama. It is less concerned with American history or even the president himself. Instead, it spellbinds its audience with a guided tour of the political machine. It could be any country at any time - the interactions here are universal.
Kushner's script has so much to say, urgently pushing out so much great dialogue via the trained mouths of some of Hollywood's finest. That is joy enough, but when the message is so important it makes the viewing experience all the more enjoyable. Spielberg wisely lets Kushner and Day-Lewis spearhead the endeavour, but while his usual flourishes are subdued there is no denying that this is a master director at work. And this is a true American masterwork.
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