The Watchers

The Watchers

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Review: Lincoln (UK Cert 12A)

A biopic of the Sixteenth President of the United States could cover a multitude of subjects, but Steven Spielberg's Lincoln focuses specifically on the President's efforts to get the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (which outlawed slavery) passed by the House of Representatives. Please note, there is no vampire hunting here.

There is an absolutely towering performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. Exuding great charisma and a quiet stoic dignity, Lincoln is a softly-spoken man absolutely determined to get the Thirteenth Amendment through. A scene towards the start of the film explains his position clearly: were the Civil War to end before the amendment was passed, any slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation may be re-enslaved. Every word is considered, thoughtful, intelligently spoken; it appears Lincoln was a formidable orator and a good storyteller and Day-Lewis rises to these challenges with aplomb. 

The star-studded supporting cast all rise to the challenge set by Day-Lewis and all deliver sterling performances. Whilst the performances of Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln (steely, damaged, devoted) and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens (wry, determined, forthright) have also been rightly acclaimed during awards season, there are several equally as brilliant performances throughout. David Strathairn is great as Lincoln's Secretary of State William Seward who counsels Lincoln against pushing for the Thirteenth Amendment against the conclusion of the Civil War; similarly Hal Holbrook gives a nice turn as Republican politician Francis Preston Blair who tries to arrange an agreement between the Union and the Confederacy. There are nicely turned performances by James Spader and John Hawkes as two operatives used by Seward (and Lincoln) to procure the necessary votes to get the Amendment through. 

There isn't a great deal of physical action in this film- the opening scene of the battlefield is short and the rest of the action takes place in darkened smoke-filled rooms as the verbal pyrotechnics begin. Screenwriter Tony Kushner crafts a strong, dense web of words for the actors to negotiate. This is a very talky piece, make no mistake, and- at two-and-a-half hours long- your attention span may well get tested. It could almost be a stage-play. But despite that (or maybe because of it), this is an intelligent piece of film-making. Spielberg's direction is, as always, assured and passionate; cinematographer Janusz Kaminski does some of his best work here and (as you would expect) John Williams' score is just sublime.

Despite the fact that you know the ending before you go in (spoiler alert: the Amendment is passed), the final vote of the House is a masterclass of filming as each name is called and asked to vote. It's beautifully done as Mary keeps tally for the votes left needed to win and the Union soldiers on the field receive the scores by telegraph. Meanwhile, the stoic Lincoln sits and waits in the White House.

This is my type of film. Well-written, expertly directed and wonderfully acted, it touches on an important moment of history and doesn't dumb it down. I have a slight niggle with the ending (as I didn't see it necessary for it to end on his assassination) but it's a purely personal matter and doesn't detract from the preceding two and a quarter hours of pure cinematic brilliance.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5


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