DIR: Steven Spielberg • WRI: Tony Kushner • PRO: Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg • DOP: Janusz Kaminski • ED: Michael Kahn • DES: J. Rick Carter • CAST: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
A film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, directed by Steven Spielberg about an American president. If ever a film had Oscars written all over it, Lincoln is that film. And yet, for its epic scale and grand storytelling, Lincoln is just that – a story about Abraham Lincoln himself. Set during his final months of life, it focuses on Lincoln’s attempts to get the Thirteenth Amendment – the abolition of slavery – and to find a peaceful end to the American Civil War. Considering this is the first large-scale film about the life of Abraham Lincoln, a near-messianic figure in American politics, it’s clear that Spielberg and Day-Lewis are taking this very, very seriously.
Daniel Day-Lewis has never given anything less than 100% in any of the characters he’s played. Indeed, he’s a by-word for method acting and complete immersion in a role. Going in, you’d expect Day-Lewis to be all Oscar-reel footage – thundering and bellowing high-language maxims about the American way and so forth. Not so. Here, Day-Lewis has imbued Lincoln with a sense of decency, honesty and complete sincerity. Forwarding his argument with parables and anecdotes – often humorous – Day-Lewis’ Lincoln draws your attention with quiet charm and dignity. There is never a moment when you are not acutely aware of why Lincoln was so beloved. Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln is one of reservedness and small intricacies which make the character seem ever more real. Although the film is a biopic, the supporting cast are never lost in Day-Lewis’ shadow. The trio of political advisors hired to procure the votes for the Amendment – James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson – give the film a much-needed comedic pressure release without seeming forced. Spader comes to the fore as a swaggering Southern lobbyist who finds him brow-beating, cajoling and bribing his way through the political process. David Strathairn, Jared Harris and Jackie Earle Haley fill out smaller roles, but each give their performance the full weight. Jared Harris, in particular, as Ulysses S. Grant has a very small role in the film with minimal dialogue – but his physical presence on-screen very nearly takes the focus from Day-Lewis.
The same can be said for Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the “radical” Republicans whom Lincoln finds himself at odds with. Jones gives his most animated performance in years as he spars in debate with Lee Pace’s out-and-out villain, Fernando Wood. Sally Field, playing Lincoln’s wife, balances against Lincoln’s stoic nature. In one particular scene, Lincoln comes close to tears as the two of them argue over their son’s enlistment in the Army. Field, in one single scene, reminds us why she won an Oscar and a Golden Globe. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, however, is the only stumbling block of the film’s impressive cast and performances. Playing the role of Lincoln’s son, Robert, Gordon-Levitt manfully tries to equal Day-Lewis in their scenes together, however their on-screen relationship comes off as flat and doesn’t materialise as well as others. It’s a small complaint as Gordon-Levitt has minimal screen time and the rest of the performances of the film are nothing short of exemplary.
Spielberg skilfully directs Lincoln and gives each segment its due and proper attention, without lingering too long on any one plot point. The film has the brisk pace of a West Wing episode and manages to capture the political process in a somewhat idealised light. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, as always, is incredible. Each scene could easily be mistaken for an oil painting, both in terms of lighting design, set design and the colour tones used. Tony Kushner’s script is careful not to slip into drawn-out set pieces. As mentioned, the film never sags or loses a sense of pace, despite its impressive running length. John Williams’ score, naturally, adds to the grandeur of the whole film without being overbearing – as is often an issue with his work. Here, it’s understated and nuanced, much like Day-Lewis’ fantastic performance. In all, Lincoln is a smart, well-paced historical drama that is deserving of its accolades. Day-Lewis delivers a career highlight and Spielberg continues to demonstrate why he is one of the best directors in American cinema.