Tuesday 5 February 2013


(Steven Spielberg, 2012)

There's always something with Spielberg, in his later work at least. Some issue, some error of judgement, something too conspicuous to be ignored. Think of the little girl in red, in Schindlers List. Or the intercutting of sex and murder in Munich. Or the framing device in Saving Private Ryan. Or the last shot in Minority Report. Always something, some distracting misstep.
For the most part, Lincoln doesn't even really feel like a Spielberg film. It seems to owe more of its personality to screenwriter Tony Kushner. Thats another way of saying that it feels somewhat like a play for long stretches; for this is a long procedural focused on political manoeuvring, on schmoozing and strategising, on persuasion and argument. This is a long procedural focused, most intently, sometimes tediously, often magnificently, on talking.
The story follows Lincoln in the weeks before the crucial House of Representatives vote on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery once and for all. The Civil War is near an end, and the President, so loved by his people, must balance the desire to end the war with the need to ensure that slavery is done with the conflict's end. He is surrounded by forceful personalities with their own agendas and styles, from his wife, still suffocating on her grief for their dead son (Sally Field) and his politically clever Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to the various figures fighting for control of the Republican party, most notably the radical Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and founder Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook). Then there are various Democrats (Lee Pace, for example), Lincoln's older son, desperate to enlist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), General Ulysses Grant (Jared Harris), not to mention the swirl of minor politicians, military men and civil servants never far away. There are so many familiar faces on show here, most of them in tiny parts, that it is almost a distraction from the story. That story basically comes down, as so many political dramas do, to the struggles of lobbyists for a few crucial votes before the bill is before the house. The most memorable lobbyist here is  a bloated, quite brilliant James Spader, as one of the few men not awed by the presence of Lincoln.
Much of Kushner's writing here is tremendous; long dazzling speeches clashing and intertwining, and Spielberg, working with his regular Director of Photography, Janusz Kaminski, makes it all look beautiful in a slightly-too-neatly-art-directed kind of way. But if you aren't interested in the period, or the subject matter, then this may well be a struggle.
The worst material is the scenes meant to humanise the lead; Lincoln and his relationships with his wife and sons is over-familiar, dull and uninspired. The best are the scenes depicting the President when he brushes against normal people and his genius for finding common ground and the right word is revealed. His habit of launching into long tangential stories and his own delight in those tales is an appealing side of his character, and one which Day-Lewis illuminates with a happy grin and a rolling pleasure in language and its power. He is typically fantastic here, transformed and utterly convincing, suggesting both the iconic image and the human being underneath. He is so calm and clever, so good-humoured, that his few flashes of fire are all the more powerful for it.
He is only really rivalled by Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens, spectacularly insulting his opponents in the house, his hard carapace concealing a sense of morality and honour that provides perhaps the films most moving moment near its climax.
That climax is where Spielberg missteps. Lincoln reaches an emotional high point when the Amendment is passed. There is celebration in the streets. Lincoln and his son listen to bells ringing from a window of the White House.
And then the film keeps going. We see Lincoln meet with Southern delegates. We see him dress to go to the theatre. We see him walk away from the camera to his death, in a shot upon which Spielberg lingers just so we know what it means. It is a moment redolent of the other Spielberg, the sentimental family entertainer, not the adult filmmaker who has been responsible for most of what has preceded it in this film. That other Spielberg peeks through a few times over the course of Lincoln - mainly whenever John Williams' score swells - but generally he is kept at bay by Kushner's literate, wordy script and the intensity of focus upon the actors here.

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