Nominated for an unrivalled 12 Oscars in the run-up to this year’s Academy Awards and starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, Steven Spielberg and presidential biopic Lincoln (2012) sounded like a match made in heaven well before any shooting began. Rather than present a decade-hopping overview of the life of America’s 16th leader, Spielberg here has chosen to hone in on the passing of the 13th Amendment: an act of abolition that will cripple the economy of the warring South, and finally liberate its enslaved black populace. What we get, in turn, is a surprisingly low-key character piece – which is all the better for it’s subtlety.
Borrowing many of the descriptive qualities of the late Gore Vidal’s 1984 novel Lincoln, whilst also utilising Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg presents a United States torn asunder by a long and debilitating civil war, waged between the Northern Union and Southern Confederacy. With the end of this most bloody of conflicts within grasp, Lincoln (Day-Lewis) instead pursues his dream of abolishing slavery across America – including the southern states ravaged by his own troops.
The stage is set for a sumptuously decorated and admirably ‘talky’ series of discourses over human equality, played out not only on Capital Hill, but in the homes of Lincoln’s closest allies. As we’ve now come to expect, Day-Lewis is a quiet revelation as ‘Honest Abe’, towering over his compatriots not only through natural height advantage, but also through his razor-sharp intellect and undying sense of compassion. Of course, those wishing to pick holes in such a portrayal will always find fault in such a rose-tinted depiction of a key historical figure. Fortunately, on this occasion at least, Spielberg’s directorial swagger shines through, offering a grandstanding realisation of a man and his times.
Drawbacks, though few and far between for this particular reviewer, do linger in the mind. Sally Field’s turn as Lincoln’s damaged and fragile wife Mary Todd often borders a little too close to the ‘scatty female recluse’ template, whilst Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Abraham’s son Robert) is little more than a poorly drawn plot device to pull his screen father’s heartstrings in the direction of the Civil War’s catastrophic impact on thousands (if not millions) of families. It’s nice to see Spielberg sticking to his guns and centring such a monumental moment in history as the abolition of slavery around his own domestic life – though those critical of the famine of African American characters featured may have harsher words for the iconic filmmaker.
Fortunately, for every Fields there is a Tommy Lee-Jones, superb as the great orator Thaddeus Stevens, whilst David Strathairn also impresses as Abe’s right-hand man William Seward. Ultimately, Spielberg’s first ‘adults only’ picture since 2005’s Mossad drama Munich, Lincoln may once again turn off those unable to palette his unique brand of ever-so-slightly-syrupy Academy epics. However, for converts and those sat firmly on the fence, this compelling and majestically mounted period piece may well reaffirm/restore your faith in one of Hollywood’s last remaining grandmasters.