Steven Spielberg | 151 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & India / English | 12 / PG-13
Daniel Day-Lewis allegedly stars in this account of the final months of President Abraham Lincoln’s life, which might more pertinently be called The 13th Amendment due to where its focus lies. I say “allegedly” because I’m not convinced they didn’t find a way to resurrect Lincoln to appear as himself, then just pretended it was Day-Lewis acting.
Although this project started life as a traditional biopic of the 16th President of the United States, as director-producer Steven Spielberg developed it over several years, it was eventually whittled down to what we have here. Most reviews and the like describe it as being about the final four months of Lincoln’s life, and in a literal sense that’s true because the last couple of months are covered at the tail-end of the movie. However, it’s really about one month: January 1865.
With the American Civil War not yet over, though clearly in its final stages, and an election recently reaffirming Lincoln’s presidency but bringing changes in the House of Representatives — changes that, importantly, don’t take effect for a few more weeks — the president decides now is the time to push through the unpopular 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which will abolish slavery. He wants it passed because it’s the right thing to do, though there is far from consensus on this point. However, the passing of the amendment would likely bring about the end of the war, which leads some to back it even though they don’t agree with the amendment in and of itself; and the forthcoming changes in the House mean there are a raft of senators soon to be looking for new jobs, whose votes might be bought with the promise of a cushty position in the near future.
If that all sounds very political, it is. I wouldn’t be the first to observe that Lincoln plays like a period version of The West Wing, but it bears repeating because it’s true. If the idea of men standing (and sitting) in rooms debating political manoeuvres — who might be persuaded to vote which way, and how they might be persuaded, and what they will want in return, and what deals need to be struck, and so on and so forth — sounds like it might make for an engrossing movie, then there’s a fair chance Lincoln will be your cup of tea. A not-insignificant proportion of viewers protest that it is boring, however, and while I in no way agree with them, your mileage may vary.
From a filmmaking perspective, this is first-class work. Spielberg shows a more restrained side to his proclivities than in the similarly-themed Amistad, but exhibits perhaps a little more flair than in his next film, Bridge of Spies. Much like that latter movie, his sentimental streak only really manifests itself in one short scene right near the end… though historians who contest the commonly-taught history of Lincoln as an upstanding man (a view this film clearly maintains) may argue the whole film gives in to this aspect of the director’s work. Either way, the film is a visual triumph, its production design award well-earned. Even more so, however, is the work of Spielberg’s regular DP, Janusz Kaminski, whose candle-and-gaslight photography of interiors is breathtakingly good. The whole picture exhibits a richness and a sharpness that, perhaps for the first time, made me wonder if 4K might be a really worthwhile idea after all.
The real meat of the film comes in the performances — not the actual political debate, because we all know how that should go, but the men performing said debate. Of course the title performance dominates the movie, but Day-Lewis does not. As I alluded to at the start, it’s hard to see the actor’s presence in the role — it’s not a performer, it is Abraham Lincoln. Not to do anyone else in the film — or, indeed, any other performance in any film ever — a disservice, but Day-Lewis embodies the President in a way few other actors have ever embodied a role. It’s quite remarkable.
It’s a real testament to the rest of the cast, then, that in the face of this powerhouse performance they all do such sterling work. Sally Field tackles a complex, potentially thankless role with aplomb. The movie is about the titular man, so her scenes are really about illuminating the President’s psyche and so creating the biopic side of the movie (i.e. the reason why it isn’t actually called The 13th Amendment), but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t make Molly a believable human being in her own right. Tommy Lee Jones also stands out as hardline abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens doesn’t get on with Lincoln and thinks the 13th Amendment doesn’t go far enough, but will he concede it’s better than nothing in a social climate where many think the opposite? And then there’s James Spader as behind-the-scenes political persuader W.N. Bilbo (yes, like the Hobbit). When he first tumbles onto the screen he looks like a misplaced comedy creation, and he does bring some much needed levity to the film, but in a measured way that doesn’t tip the scales too far. It makes the whole better because of it.
They’re still the tip of the iceberg, however, because in the film’s expansive two-and-a-half-hour running time there’s space for accomplished performances from David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, David Oyelowo, Adam Driver… I’m just naming them in the order they are in the cast listing. Some of them are only in one scene. I still think I’ve missed some people.
For me, there are few black marks (unfortunate choice of phrase…) to be held against Lincoln. Does it give in to Spielberg’s sentimentality? Yeah, a little — but it’s a long, long way from the worst case of that, and I think you’d be nitpicky (or have a different opinion on history, which, you know, is a matter of opinion) to criticise the film too harshly for that. As to whether it’s boring, that’s entirely a matter of preference. If you think The West Wing is boring, people who write lists of “the greatest TV shows ever” will disagree with you, and you also likely won’t like Lincoln. I like The West Wing, though.
Lincoln is going to be remembered for Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, and in many respects that’s fine, because (as I’ve said a couple of times now) it is an astonishing piece of acting. Fortunately for the viewer seeking out that performance, there’s an awful lot more to Spielberg’s polished political drama.
The UK network TV premiere of Lincoln is on Film4 tomorrow at 9pm.
It placed 13th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.