There is a spirit that runs through much of American history, often buried these days in the politics of our age, of never giving up the fight. Though the USA has often taken far too long to join the fight (world wars, civil rights issues), once it starts, change, and victory, follow rapidly. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the director’s latest historical “epic” and his finest since Schindler’s List, is a study of a man who has already fought enough, yet still fights on.
Opening in the closing days of the Civil War, Lincoln finds the South in retreat and the stately president, played with near-divine presence by Daniel Day-Lewis, doubting he has done enough to secure the Union for after the war. The Emancipation Proclamation, perhaps Abraham Lincoln’s most famous decree, was not law but presidential order, telling the armies of the Union to free any slaves rescued from the Confederacy. Believing enormous change can come sooner rather than later, Lincoln sees the president attempt, against the recommendation of his advisors and his wife, to push through a legally binding end to slavery.
Showing remarkable restraint by a director who has never before known the meaning of the word, Spielberg ignores the battles and sieges of an undoubtedly cinematic war in favour of telling a story of political machinations and social justice. He and screenwriter Tony Kushner, the playwright behind the magnificent Angels in America who also co-authored Spielberg’s troubled Munich, are far more concerned with the man beneath the stovepipe hat and his surely impossible mission than with the conflict between brothers that tore America apart. This is character drama of the highest order, which also finds plenty of room for grandstanding speeches and backdoor political shenanigans.
With outstanding attention to period detail, Lincoln slowly but rhythmically clicks along, building towards the Congressional vote that will decide the future of a nation and allow Lincoln to end his war. The film feels like a three-episode arc of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, with fluctuations between strong drama and jaunty, exciting meetings between his political moles and less staunch Democrats who may be swayed to vote for the abolition of slavery.
The sets are fantastic, with the floor of Congress superbly lit by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, while the interior of the White House is swamped in dark colours, as if in mourning for a country at war, a people enslaved and the president’s recently deceased son William.
Day-Lewis gives a towering performance in the lead role, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders while still being given over to telling amusing anecdotes and showing moments of human weakness. He eschews the traditional Gregory Peck-style deep-voiced impersonation in favour of a historically accurate, higher-pitched and somewhat raspy voice that carries Lincoln’s pain and exhaustion perfectly, while also showing that voice as a hurdle the president can overcome when passion and fury require it of him.
Giving Day-Lewis a run for his money is Tommy Lee Jones, as Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a bullish radical more devoutly anti-slavery than the president himself. His cutthroat performance, overlaying a powerfully but subtly humanist character, carries a huge amount of the film’s emotional punch. As Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field is strong, though prone to melancholic melodrama that feels out of place in her scenes with Day-Lewis’s restrained performance.
Several of the supporting players convince, with David Strathairn, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephen Henderson and particularly James Spader – as moustachioed political lobbyist/shyster William Bilbo – proving themselves ideal casting. Jared Harris is sadly underused as his historical doppelganger Ulysses S. Grant, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt sleepwalks his way through the underwritten role of the Lincolns’ eldest son, Robert.
Punctuated with fine moments of humour, and unimposingly accompanied by John Williams’s suitably swelling score, Lincoln is never less than a brilliant period political drama. Through its balanced script, restrained direction and its superb central performance, it lets the all-too-often overshadowed goodness of the American dream shine earnestly forth.