Steven Spielberg assembles an incredible cast of noted character performers for this dense and stately, yet thoroughly compelling history lesson. As a Brit, my knowledge of American history, and the Civil War in particular is sketchy at best, but Spielberg’s film is a far cry from action-packed war epics like Edward Zwick’s Glory. Unlike other cinematic portraits of former presidents, like Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Lincoln is primarily a film about politics, negotiation and compromise, as the President battles against everyone, from fellow Republicans, to rival Democrats to even his own wife, in order to push through the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery before the war ends. Along the way, Lincoln’s tactics are often considerably more underhand than his ultimate intention, but this realization that he was prepared to do whatever it took to get the job done goes a long way to understanding why he will always be remembered and revered for his unwavering dedication.
In a statement that is increasingly becoming clichéd in recent years, Daniel Day Lewis gives a phenomenal performance as Lincoln, in just the latest chapter of a career filled with incredible performances. He stands almost entirely uncontested to win his third Best Actor Oscar this coming weekend (an unprecedented achievement) which will doubtless solidify his position as the World’s Greatest Living Screen Actor. While the film is every bit Day Lewis’ show, there is excellent support from the likes of Tommy Lee Jones as revolutionary politician Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn and Sally Field, as well as a wonderful return to form from James Spader as part of a comedic trio of men commissioned with the task of swaying moderate Democrats to their cause.
Some have criticized John Williams’ score of being manipulative and intrusive, but for me it went largely unnoticed, and Spielberg too shows notable restraint in what could so easily have become a melodramatic, breast-beating schmaltz-fest. High praise must also be awarded to Tony Kushner for his incredibly verbose yet riveting screenplay, which fashions a dry, legislative procedural into a gripping drama that helped reshape a nation.
When the Academy Award nominations were announced last month, Lincoln was the clear favourite, expected to walk away with a number of awards including Best Picture and Best Director. The last few weeks, however, have seen the tide turn in favour of Ben Affleck’s Argo, and Lincoln has been largely ignored, with the exception of Day Lewis. Kushner’s screenplay still has a good chance of winning, in my opinion, as does Spielberg for Best Director, but its position as “Best Film of 2012” seems far less secure than it was in January.
Regardless of what accolades the film ultimately accrues, Lincoln remains an incredibly engaging film of words, conversations, parables and debates, with Kushner’s dialogue the rich blood that gives life to this complex account of a pivotal moment in US History.