Lincoln (Steven Spielberg - USA) 150 minutes
Ten or fifteen years ago, a Lincoln biopic (if this film, can, indeed, be so considered) in Steven Spielberg’s hands would have been a different thing entirely. The historical achievement Lincoln is most readily associated with — the abolition of slavery, more formally known as the 13th amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America — is ripe for complaisant scenarios, and complaisant scenarios — let’s be honest here — are Spielberg’s stock in trade. One need only look at the slave-revolt-courtroom-drama Amistad (1997) to see how Spielberg is so ready, like a contemporary Candide, to mine every historical event for its best possible outcome, one generally facilitated by the now notorious white-saviour complex.
Things started looking up with Spielberg’s 2005 Munich, which was a surprisingly nuanced dramatisation of Mossad’s reaction to the Munich massacres. The screenwriter was Tony Kushner, and it is he who provides the backbone to what is Spielberg’s finest film since Schindler’s List and possibly his best ever.
Lincoln announces itself as a film about the 16th president of the United States, and emphasises that primordiality by its casting of Daniel Day Lewis, a man who makes himself available for work with exceptional parsimony these days, in the lead role. Day Lewis as Lincoln is the perfect fit; as well as looking reasonably like him, he manages to incarnate the president’s goofish affability and looming political weight while never making the film about just him. He is, obviously, the subject of the film but Spielberg and Kushner are content to let him sink into the background, as indeed he did during the lobbying for votes for the amendment in early 1865.
Kushner’s screenplay, adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln biography Team of Rivals, rightly focuses on the radical abolitionist faction of Congress, led by Thaddeus Stevens (a superb Tommy Lee Jones), whose scepticism as to Lincoln’s amendment is slowly eroded in the face of circumstances and, more crucially, hope. It is this anchoring of the political dialogue that allows Spielberg to reach beyond the passing of the bill and accord it its rightful seismic historical importance without treating it as an ineffable historical end-point. Stevens is the anchor in Congress, a bruiser in debates with pro-slavers, most notably, Fernando Wood (played by Lee Pace), but also someone who knows when to cut a deal, however compromising that might be, when the moment is right.
What we see in Lincoln is the sausage of laws being made, as the shortfall of the necessary 20 votes is made up by the government using all sorts of incentives and threats. All of this is handled by the president’s fixers — a wonderful Falstaffian troupe led by James Spader, who provide some of the film’s more humorous moments. They also imbue the film with much of its period texture — and I don’t think I have relished the detail of a period film so much since Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy. Some critics have suggested the film is an analogy for Obama’s presidency; it’s not an idea without merit, especially given Day Lewis’s tendency to drift in and out of congressional proceedings like the current president. Another description of the film that has floated about online - a "political procedural", sums it up rather better though. This is testimony to Kushner’s sensibility for dialectic and also a sneaking suspicion that, in the story of every great man of history, the most interesting thing lies elsewhere (if not too far away).
Lincoln is a long and sumptuous film, though I can’t say I found it over-long, and, believe me, I complain about the length of films often enough. It marries Spielberg’s considerable technical and narrative talents with a screenwriter who has a nose for how stories can be told intelligently in mainstream cinema - notably, without any pretension. And Kushner gives the film a vital edge too that saves it from being yet another worthy slice of Hollywood hagiography. His screenplay, along with Janusz Kaminski’s rich, wintry photography, steers a recognisably Spielbergian film towards something exceptional.