Steven Spielberg’s sprawling historical biopic Lincoln (2012), starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, gained near universal praise State-side for its depiction of the final four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life. This side of the pond, the rally cries have not been quite as potent, but interest has undoubtedly been piqued. We open to a country gridlocked by civil war (the opening scene – a brutal, muddy battle – shot in a manner that evokes 1998’s Saving Private Ryan), where amongst the turbulent politics of Washington’s Capitol Hill stands America’s 16th president. Fatigued by the thousands of lives lost in the conflict, he is desperate to end the bloodshed.
Lincoln, however, is equally keen to pass the 13th Amendment: an act of abolition that will cripple the economy of the South and finally liberate the enslaved black populace. Getting the act passed will prolong the war, and it is here the moral dilemma lies. Spielberg has made sure to check his sources whilst taking some liberties for artistic effect, and has employed the descriptive qualities of Gore Vidal’s 1984 novel Lincoln whilst blending in the more academic tone of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 biography Team of Rivals.
Spielberg makes Lincoln the linchpin of the tale, but his concern ultimately lies with race relations and politics – timely indeed, following the 2nd term election of Barack Obama. Although the film is less obsessed with the minutiae of one of the US’s most iconic historical figures, there are little flourishes that make Day-Lewis’ performance very fine indeed. Lincoln continually speaks in fables, drawing in one and all as he smacks his lips together with his wholesome drawl. What’s more, most of the film’s best moments lies with the drama contained in the corridors and chambers of the White House, all of which have been designed and shot to kindle a homely atmosphere of lamp lights and shadowy corners.
It’s in these dark recesses where Lincoln conspires with Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens (who is sadly given little space to truly impress). We also have the addition of three dubious hucksters – including a Falstaffian James Spader – there to procure votes from ‘lame duck’ democrats and raise spirits amidst the staccato pacing. The political drama unfolds with conviction, but it often fails to generate any palpable sense of tension. Instead, as is Spielberg’s want, the director seems to relish more his scenes of familial interaction. This includes Joseph Gordon Levitt’s so-so performance as Lincoln’s son John, plus the woeful miscasting of Sally Fields as Mary Todd, who squawks like the archetypal ‘mad woman in the attic’.
Somewhat bizarrely for a film concerned so with African American rights, the script provides no room for a rounded black character. Instead, we have a number of short, token scenes of diligent housemaids and butlers, given little time to become anything more than a reminder of the era. Ambitious in scope but indulgent in its delivery, the arc of Lincoln’s story is waylaid by Spielberg’s own directorial preferences. A little more daring could have made this a thrilling courtroom drama – and not the messy family drama/humdrum war epic we’re left with.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is released in UK cinemas on 25 January, 2013.