This year, the US presidential election has highlighted many of the things wrong with modern politics, especially for non-Americans. Neither candidate was particularly inspiring to the outside world, although Romney was clearly the more terrifying potential ‘leader of the free world’. Whether or not it was intentional to release Lincoln so close to the election or not (I’d imagine it was) it does make this tale of one of America’s greatest reforms very pertinent in an age when all changes seem to be blocked by the ‘my policy is bigger than yours’ attitude of today’s party leaders. Although, disregarding its timely release, Lincoln is also a very good film in its own right, and far more likely to net Oscars than Spielberg’s last effort, War Horse.
Unlike many biopics, Lincoln does not tell the entire life story of its subject, instead focussing on the final few months of Honest Abe’s life when he attempted to end the American Civil War and pass the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment. It also skips over his undead-slaying younger days, which has already been covered in great detail in this year’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, most likely for the best. This very precise area of historical focus is both a blessing and a slight curse for the film. As a good thing, it allows for a less meandering story and doesn’t try to cram in too much into its runtime, as many biopics often do. However, this was certainly one of the finest hours of Lincoln’s life, meaning that the lack of anything else except these, admittedly momentous, events can occasionally drop into a slightly imbalanced hero worship of the man.
Lincoln’s obvious charisma and historical greatness are greatly aided by the casting of Daniel Day Lewis who, whilst not quite as terrifyingly magnetic as his Daniel Plainview performance, really does hold the screen better than almost any other actor in a film this year. His softly spoken authority is utterly captivating throughout, even through his thick (and really, really superb) ageing make-up. He looks convincingly ancient, evidently strained by the pressures of his responsibilities and the prosthetics are far more natural-looking than, say, Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, a real testament to the make up department. In fact, everyone looks mightily impressive in their period costumes and hilarious old-timey beards. It would be a surprise to me if, come awards time, Lincoln’s technical departments walk away empty handed, although the very overdone dream and flashback sequences shouldn’t really expect any praise, all obvious green screen and sepia tone effects that could be achieved by anyone with video editing on their computer.
However, it is never just the lead actor that makes a film and Spielberg has assembled one of the best supporting casts of the year. It’s not a huge, starry, Ocean’s Eleven style coming together of big names, but instead a compilation of some of the best character actors that Hollywood has to offer, from John Hawkes to Joseph Gordon Levitt, David Strathairn to a film stealing James Spader and more that would take too long to list fully. Every scene drips with thespian quality and is aided by a quality script by Tony Kushner, very tense, a genuinely fantastic aspect of the film, as movies based on real events live or die on how well they can make you forget what really happened in order to build excitement, something Lincoln, particularly the finale, does. It is also (entirely unexpectedly) actually very funny. Lincoln’s stories and Thaddeus Stevens’ (Tommy Lee Jones, another wonderful performance) insults all essayed a roomful of laughs in the cinema I was in, especially impressive given how great the potential for a very po-faced account was.
Spielberg’s direction feels far more effortless than it has recently, perhaps due to a more inspirational material from him to draw off, but the film still has moments where a slight heavy-handedness can be felt, as he sweeps up the action into a heavenly glow and easy morals. Luckily, these instances are often offset by some muddy scenes of the poor 19th century living conditions, or the unforgiving look at the Civil War scenes, a moment in which a cartload of amputated limbs are dumped into a crater. Scenes like this prove that Spielberg is willing to show war in a way that War Horse shied away from, and adds the nationwide scale to an already very impressive account of one man’s struggle.
Lincoln will release in the UK on January 25th 2013.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn
Run Time: 150 mins
Rating: Undecided by BBFC (British ratings board), PG-13 from MPAA (American ratings board, generally translates to a 12)