Lincoln

29 Apr

lincoln

 

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book)

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 150 minutes

 

Spielberg was always going to make this film and he was always going to cast Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president of the United States. His vision was finally realized and award nominations duly followed. Whilst not a masterpiece, Lincoln is an achievement for all concerned and the timing is interesting. American politics today is of little succour or interest to most of its citizens and long since gone are senior political figures to inspire the nation. Abraham Lincoln was inspiring, a role model. Compared to the leading politicians of modern day Washington, he is a giant.

The stature of Lincoln is emphasized from the start of this film. He is shown in shadow, sitting high on a makeshift stage, a tall looming and brooding figure. He towers over his family. He seemingly carries an enormous burden on his large angular frame. It is classic Spielberg, and it is classic Day-Lewis. He is Lincoln in every detail and his performance rightly won awards. It is exemplary and intelligent work and Day-Lewis carries the film with grace.

The story is that of Lincoln’s fight to abolish slavery during the last year of the American civil war. He wants to end the war, but he also wants to end slavery for which the south are in part fighting. It is shocking to see and hear southern politicians explaining their moral and natural right to keep slaves. It is repugnant, but only 150 years ago that such debates took place. Lincoln plus Tarantino’s Django Unchained shed light on a relatively taboo cinematic subject. Is that a coincidence? I am not sure, but Steve McQueen’s film Twelve Years a Slave is coming soon so there seems to be a wave that’s building.

In fairness to Spielberg, his Lincoln is not a belligerent piece of work and is more concerned with Lincoln the man and Washington politics than slavery and the civil war. It surprised me just how small and quiet this film is. There are few scenes shot outdoors and ‘action’ is limited to full-blown filibustering. This is a film about politics and about beliefs. As such it is very heavy on the dialogue and, apart from about 20 minutes around half-way, it carries that dialogue well. The acting is strong across the cast with Lincoln’s 3 backdoor fixers finely played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes. Only Spielberg can attract such a stellar cast.

I enjoyed this film, but I was not blown away by it. Day-Lewis is extraordinary and the production values (in costume, sets, music) are extremely high. Lincoln is a polished piece of work and retells a crucial part of US history. It should be utterly absorbing, but that is not quite the case. It is worthwhile, comes from the heart and is acted beautifully, but I cannot say that it is fully engaging or uplifting. And for a Spielberg film, so long in getting made, I find that a little surprising.

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