Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes
You may like this if you liked: Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), Che: Part Two (Steven Soderbergh, 2008), Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)
America 1865: Abraham Lincoln has just been re-elected as president and after years of bloodshed, the civil war seems to be reaching its conclusion. President Lincoln however is still determined to achieve an amendment through the House of Representatives to banish slavery for good. However, if peace is achieved, President Lincoln knows that these Southern states that they have been fighting all this time will never vote for it when reinstated. The President now faces a race against time to get this bill through and make sure that enough members vote for it, and some members will not be easily persuaded. The President is torn, as an early peace would potentially save more bloodshed, but he knows how crucially important the abolishment of slavery is in the country’s future.
Firstly, let’s face it, anything that can be said about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance has already been said. The fact is that he is one of the best actors of his generation, if not of all time and his tendency to be a picky bugger when it comes to taking film roles is to be respected, well maybe apart from Nine. His performance here is as committed as ever and utterly spellbinding, you do genuinely believe you are almost watching a reincarnation of the man himself on screen. One of the things that enhances the power of this performance is the very effective depiction of Abraham Lincoln’s physicality. He was 6’4” tall with long arms and legs, and Spielberg uses this to great effect as in every scene he always towers over everyone as I am sure he would have done in real life. It is also credit to Spielberg for not simply depicting Abraham Lincoln as a saint, his weaknesses and moments of self doubt are portrayed just as clearly as those that made him such a great man.
I came into this film with a couple of fears: Firstly all I seemed to hear was praise for Day-Lewis’ performance but very little else mentioned, a great performance does not necessarily make a great film. Also, for someone who knows only the basics of this period of American history like me, would this leave the film feeling alienating?
Well, the film does actually boast a huge array of well known names in its cast such as Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley among others. Despite the nature of this being a protagonist driven narrative, all these characters get their own individual moments to shine and all the actors excel with excellent performances. It is a credit to Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner that Day-Lewis does not appear in every scene, leaving other very important characters in this moment in history the chance to shine and for us the viewer to be made aware of their own very important individual contributions. It is fair to say that the dialogue is littered with constant wannabe Oscar speeches, however given the moment in history and the talent saying it, this is forgivable.
That was the first fear resolved, now the second: There is no denying that Lincoln is effort and you are certainly required to concentrate, especially as it is dialogue heavy throughout which certainly includes plenty of political jargon. However, after 15 or 20 minutes when it is established who everyone is, what their place is and what everyone is trying to achieve; Lincoln is a deeply involving and thoroughly gripping political drama. Abraham Lincoln’s desperate bid to persuade people of great power to vote with him is gripping and compelling, even though we all know what the end result will be. What also adds to the involvement of the drama is that Spielberg lets characters that face a real life conflict when deciding how to vote have the screen time for us to genuinely understand their conflict and not just portray them as simply against Lincoln therefore bad people. This is a film which treats the viewers as intelligent people who clearly understand that in such a dramatic situation, things are never simple or straight forward. Anyone expecting the dramatic visual set pieces of previous Spielberg period dramas will be disappointed as this is a dialogue heavy film. It is definitely true that is not the most cinematic of films, and perhaps feels a little more like a television drama at times, but this is not a criticism as though the film is dialogue heavy, the narrative for me moved along at a quick pace as there is always something happening. Even John Williams’ usually dominant music is very minimal.
It is not until the final 20 minutes after the result we all know happens that Lincoln feels cinematic with sweeping music and dramatic outdoor scenes. However, for me it this last 20 minutes that severely lets this film down and does not need to be there at all, almost undoing all the good work in the preceding two hours. This may well sound like I am criticising Spielberg for basically being Spielberg, but the final 20 minutes is overblown cinematic schmaltz and sentimentality which is completely different from the dialogue heavy tone of the previous two hours. For me, this just did not need to be there, this is a film about a moment in history and one man who played a major contribution to that, it is not an arse licking biopic of Abraham Lincoln’s life. However these last twenty minutes feel exactly like that. I of course do not want to spoil the ending, but we all know what happens afterwards to the President once peace is agreed. How this is portrayed here is embarrassingly cheesy, adding nothing to the compelling political drama we have just spent two hours watching. It almost feels like we have forgotten that we are watching a Spielberg film, The Beard has realised this and decided to remind us, and maybe trying to please the academy to make it a hat trick at the same time, very disappointing Steven!
For the first two hours Lincoln is a compelling and deeply involving political drama about an extremely important moment in history. An amazing central performance is also complimented by excellent supporting performances. It does require effort but this is amply rewarded, especially if you leave twenty minutes before the end.