Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn
Synopsis: As the Civil War continues to rage, America’s president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves.
Although it’s not unreasonable to expect otherwise from a movie called Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s historical epic isn’t a biopic of America’s 16th President, but a rather dry account of the political intrigue surrounding the passing of the 13th Amendment, which effectively abolished slavery in the United States. As you’d expect, these labyrinthine machinations are explored with painstaking attention to detail and a huge amount of respect for the man at their centre, but this admirable thoroughness makes for somewhat glum entertainment.
The dearth of intelligent, thought-provoking Hollywood movies is a major concern these days, which makes it all the more unfortunate that Spielberg’s take on the story of the passing of the 13th Amendment is as dry as a history lesson in a room with no windows on a hot summer’s day. While Lincoln may well satisfy students of American history, it’s unlikely to engage the casual viewer who stumbles upon it by chance. The movie is largely a succession of meetings in which ageing politicians either argue over the merit of Lincoln’s controversial proposal, or over how to ensure it is passed by the House of Representatives. The scenes smack of authenticity. The actors who play the politicians have faces right out of the 19th Century, and the costumes and set design are impeccable. But the film just refuses to come alive.
British actor Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood) wears the beard and stovepipe hat and deceptively stern expression with subdued authority. I almost grow tired of writing about what an astonishingly good actor Day-Lewis is. Like a man obsessed, he explores every facet of the character he is to play and uses every piece of information he learns to fashion as authentic a representation of his subject as is humanly possible. It’s said that while filming Lincoln, the text messages he sent to family and friends were written in the style and tone of the great man. Such immersion in a role might seem ridiculous, but Day-Lewis obviously feels that it enhances his performances, the consistently high quality of which is inarguable.
Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, 12 years before the invention of the phonograph, so there is no recording of his voice to which we can compare Day-Lewis’s version. He received a lot of criticism over the high, nasal tone he adopted for the role, but contemporary accounts tend to back up the actor’s choice. Not that it really matters. What matters is that Day-Lewis captures the essence and spirit of the man. Lincoln is calm and thoughtful while those around him bluster, and the folksy tales he tells contain oblique solutions to issues by which others are confounded. This is a deceptively strong, wily man – as anyone with the courage to propose such a radical, unthinkable Amendment as the 13th must have been.
The Amendment’s rocky passage is a turbulent journey, each step of which is marked by lies, bribes and aggressive lobbying. Lincoln knows it must be voted in before the end of the Civil War, and he realises that many members of the public are only in favour of the emancipation of slaves because they believe it will hasten an end to the war. But he doesn’t have the requisite number of votes to push it through the House of Representatives. So his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn – Stars and Bars, L.A. Confidential) hires lobbyists, led by the crude W. N. Bilbo (James Spader – 2 Days in the Valley, Curtain Call) to offer favours for votes as the day of reckoning draws nearer.
Knowing the outcome of a story doesn’t necessarily have to mean it can’t engage the viewer. A well-told story is a treasure in its own right, which is why we so often return to our favourites. Even stories about political finagling can make for riveting viewing if the filmmaker can identify and exploit the human angle. Spielberg attempts to achieve this through a shapeless sub-plot which sees the Lincolns’ oldest son, Robert (a wasted Joseph Gordon-Levitt – 50/50, The Dark Knight Rises) insisting on going to war against his parent’s wishes, but it feels clumsy and forced. It ultimately goes nowhere, and the grim promises of fearful recriminations if their son dies that Molly Lincoln (Sally Field – Forrest Gump, The Amazing Spiderman) makes to her husband are almost comical in the way they make the world’s most powerful man look henpecked.
Spielberg does manage to create a marvellously poignant final scene to the movie, but even blows that by inserting it three scenes from the credits, following it with another two utterly superfluous scenes which completely shatter the poignancy of Lincoln’s demise. How a director of Spielberg’s experience and talent is incapable of seeing this misstep is both mystifying and, like the film as a whole, rather disappointing.
(Reviewed 11th January 2016)