saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
13th January 2013
It's fair to say that with Lincoln, Steven Spielberg has taken certain (civil) liberties with American history. Spielberg's pet project for years, and unashamedly patriotic, this is a lushly shot vehicle for Daniel Day-Lewis' exceptional performance. But if you're looking for a true warts-and-all biopic, that isn't sanitised to the nth degree, you really won't find it here.
Rather than looking at Lincoln's life, this mainly focuses on the brief few weeks surrounding the House of Representatives' vote for the 13th Amendment, effectively enshrining in law the end of slavery following Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. If you think the political wranglings of freeing a people are fairly dry, well, this might not be the film for you. Layer onto that the strategies, conspiracies and dealings to end the American Civil War and countless grey men in grey suits and grey wigs looking and acting largely the same (save for Tommy Lee Jones' staunchly anti-slavery Thaddeus Stevens and a few of the opposition Democrats - not least Lee Pace's hateful Fernando Wood). And just for the family element - so you know it's truly a Spielberg film - we have his mad wife Mary (Sally Field), his army-minded son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his youngest kid Tad (Gulliver McGrath).
Make no mistake, this is essentially a courtroom drama dressed up as a biopic. A political thriller with due process and political back-and-forths replacing conflict. Okay, so it's not all Spielberg's fault - after all, we know the positive ending to the story - but a little danger would have worked.
They do try to inject some jeopardy and humour, as a trio of political operatives try to secure renegade Democrat votes to allow the amendment to be pushed through. I know what you're thinking - laughs-a-minute, right? Well, yes, actually. James Spader adds great comic relief as the buffoonish but incredibly astute W.N. Bilbo, the only one of the rag-tag team who is any good.
So after all that, where does it excel? Well, obviously in Daniel Day-Lewis' frankly breathtaking performance. He appears to be about two feet taller and 10 stone skinnier than he actually is. His embodiment of Lincoln, his mannerisms and voice are all entirely believable. It seems redundant to say with an actor of Day-Lewis' credibility, but he inhabits the magnetic, inspiring and charming Abe of Spielberg's imagination - if not reality. Half the time, the only reason to keep watching is for this, the latest spellbinding instalment of Danny boy's acting masterclass.
It's a shame Sally Field can't justify her Oscar nod, playing as she does a caricature of one of Tennessee Williams' female protagonists lacking any appeal. She lurches between deathly dull and tiresomely hysterical. By the end, Lincoln wasn't the only one wanting to put her in a madhouse. By contrast, Gordon-Levitt is incredibly strong (as per usual) and makes a fine impact in a relatively short amount of time, giving all to his fractious relationship with his father. Tommy Lee Jones' usual curmudgeon-with-a-heart makes an appearance but his final shots are arguably where Spielberg takes the most historical liberties for the sake of a pointlessly saccharine reveal. It's just a shame then that other titans fade into the background - Jackie Earle Haley, Hal Holbrook and John Hawkes (amazing in The Sessions) just get lost in the muddle.
And there's no doubting Spielberg's attention to detail and mise-en-scene. From the night-time battlefields, black and blue punctuated by flashes of orange, to the White House's sumptuous display of mahogany and moody ochre lighting, it's simply beautiful. Even when you're 20 minutes into a House back-and-forth, you can't doubt the style. The opening battle echoes Saving Private Ryan's Normandy landing, but rawer. Whereas that seemed hyper-stylised, if horrific, this is simply brutal. Later beats, including a barrowful of limbs and piles of dead bodies don't really puncture the safe little environment Spielberg has built, but they are welcome reminders of the Civil War nonetheless.
Initially, you'd be left wondering why staunch Democrat Spielberg would want to be attached to this project, which clearly glorifies the Republican Party and makes an ass out of the Dems (poor joke intended). And it's only when you actually read that screenwriter Tony Kushner believes Lincoln would be a Democrat today does it all fall into place. This isn't about true, realistic portrayals of political parties. Being facetious, I have absolutely no doubt Kushner would have gone so far as to swap their names if he thought they could get away with it. They're retrofitting Lincoln as a Dem to suit their own ideology - someone who freed the slaves couldn't possibly be a member of the GOP. And as a bleeding-heart liberal myself, it's infuriating.
Saying that, Kushner's script does humanise others, if not Abe himself. There are a number of witty asides and attacks within the House that put our Commons to shame and ensure even at its driest, it doesn't become too Sahara. But when you've heard Day-Lewis give his 50th inspirational speech/story/talk to the swelling John Williams soundtrack (which is remarkably subdued for a lot of the film), it seems as if you're just watching proselytising for the sake of it.
But again, the main reason this falls down is due to Spielberg's rose-tinted spectacles. The film, in broad strokes, is remarkably historically accurate. Everything that's in this film largely happened as presented. But that's not to say that all that happened is presented here. It's so de-fanged that although correct in fact, it's entirely wrong in feeling. Even when he's lying, cheating and buying his way to success, getting tetchy with Mary or angry with his son, Honest Abe can do no wrong. So, Honest Lincoln? Not at all.
Lincoln was released in the UK on 25th January 2013.
Nearest tube station: Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly, Bakerloo)