Film of the week: A perfect portrait of a president
Fim Review Lincoln (12A, general release, 150 minutes)
Published 25/01/2013 | 18:00
In the opening moments of Lincoln, the horror and madness of the American Civil War is neatly summarised as Steven Spielberg's camera sweeps across a muddy battlefield on which scrawny-looking combatants shoot, punch, stab, bludgeon and maul each other to death.
Observing this squalid panorama, one might be forgiving for wondering what it was all about, but Abraham Lincoln never seems to have been in any doubt.
Though by no means a radical abolitionist, Lincoln had long been convinced that slavery was a cancer in the American body politic.
This epic drama follows his attempts to push an amendment banning slavery through Congress while managing the Civil War.
No one else but Spielberg would have got Lincoln made. A $65m political drama that lasts the guts of three hours and makes absolutely no concessions to the cheap seats must have been a pretty hard sell.
The film is partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's historical biopic, Team of Rivals, and Spielberg bought the rights to the book before she'd even written it. Liam Neeson was originally due to play Lincoln, but in 2010 it was announced that Daniel Day-Lewis would replace him.
His pairing with Sally Field, who plays Lincoln's histrionic wife Mary, and in real life is 11 years older than Day-Lewis, might sound problematic, but actually works extremely well.
It's 1865 and Abraham Lincoln has been re-elected for a second term, but the Civil War rumbles on. Ending that conflict is the primary concern of Lincoln's Republican Party, but Lincoln wants to do something about slavery first.
His reasoning is as follows: if war ends before his 13th Amendment permanently banning slavery is passed, the returning southern slave states will block all future attempts to introduce it. But in getting that amendment through Congress, Lincoln and his loyal Secretary of State William H Seward ( David Strathairn) face seemingly insuperable obstacles.
While the Republican Radicals, led by lifelong abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens ( Tommy Lee Jones), are clamouring for an immediate vote on the constitutional amendment, the party's conservatives are lukewarm at best.
It might be tempting to dismiss Lincoln as safe and solid heritage cinema, but that would be to entirely miss its point. It is meticulously constructed, from the muted colours of Janusz Kaminski's cinematography to the lush strains of John William's soundtrack and the commendable realism of Rick Carter's set design. But first and foremost it's a film about politics, in fact it's one of the most serious and intelligent films about the American political system that's ever been made.
Tony Kushner's witty script cleverly teases out both Lincoln's many-layered personality and the challenges he faced in ending the abomination of slavery.
Spielberg is a peerless visual storyteller, and somehow manages to make a devilishly complex plot palatable. He's helped hugely by his actors: Field is memorably brittle as Mary Ford Lincoln, Jones is very strong as the spiky abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, and James Spader is excellent as the salty huckster William Bilbo.
I suppose everyone would be shocked if Day-Lewis's wasn't brilliant as Lincoln: of course, he is.
Just occasionally, when Williams' music blows a little too loud and lush, Day-Lewis's lanky, careworn Abe seems in danger of ossifying, but the best screen actor of his and several other generations never allows that to happen.
Instead he gives us a rounded and note-perfect portrayal of a genuinely great man who hid his formidable political instincts and intelligence behind a folksy image.
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