Entitled simply “Lincoln”, directed by Steven Spielberg and with a score by John Williams, you could be forgiven for expecting a slick, grandiose epic. A small town mid-Westerner who educated himself, struck out on his own, became a lawyer and eventually President, Abraham Lincoln’s life is tailor made for the Great American Movie.
But this is no biopic. Lincoln declines the romance of the man’s life story. The focus is narrow; one month, to be precise. It’s the beginning of 1865 and the American Civil War is drawing to a close. Lincoln is conflicted. Like everyone else in the country he craves peace. However, he is also aware of the need to get the 13th amendment written into the constitution before the end of war, or risk the continuation of slavery in the surrendering southern states.
We are not presented with a simple moral conflict: advocates of slavery (bad) vs abolitionists (good). Instead the plot is driven by the snags and nuances of American government institutions. The battle has already been won – the problem now is making government work. Spielberg and writer Toby Kushner take this towering figure of American history and bring him down to where he rightfully belongs – in the knotty world of Washington DC.
When we first meet Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln we cannot see his face. Throughout the film he is often partially cast in silhouette, a halo of light outlining his profile. It’s an apt metaphor for the man: Lincoln’s great moral victory was against slavery, but the game at which he was most skilled was a dark and dirty one – politics.
In many scenes advisors and fellow politicians surround him, indignantly wrangling over Washington intrigue, until he crashes a heavy palm to the table. Silence falls and Day-Lewis fills it with slow, heavy words, rich with wisdom but delivered through a twinkling smile.
He talks in stories and parables, and just as his face is obscured by darkness, it is often unclear what he is getting at. At one point he makes the enigmatic declaration, “Time thickens things”, to which his loyal secretary of state responds, “Yes I guess it does… Actually I have absolutely no idea what you mean.”
With his mischievous smile, Day-Lewis is predictably good at portraying Lincoln the astute politician while retaining his aura as the ultimate champion of liberty. The rest of the cast is consistently excellent too, which is lucky given how talky the whole thing is (after half an hour I felt like a constitutional scholar). Tommy Lee Jones is particularly good as the acid tongued radical, Thaddeus Stevens.
In a Zen-like display of will-power, Spielberg manages to hold the sentimental gloop at bay for almost the entire film. Almost. Unfortunately there is an almighty lapse in the final ten minutes, one that is difficult to stomach precisely because the rest of the film left us unprepared for it.
Overall, though, this is a classy political drama about the machinery of power. It has more in common with something like In the Loop than, say, Amazing Grace (the 2006 William Wilberforce biopic set over 20 years). Lincoln depicts a moral visionary, but focuses on his pragmatism. Are you taking notes, Mr Obama?