Dir: Steven Spielberg
With: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones
Runtime: 150 minutes
TO gaze at the statue of America's 16th President in the Lincoln Memorial is to feel like an ant standing at the foot of a giant. One imagines the viewer is meant to have much the same reaction to Steven Spielberg's stately look at the last four months in the President's life as he strives to abolish slavery and end the Civil War.
Without a doubt, Spielberg's Lincoln looks magnificent. Its screenplay, by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, fizzes with ideas and luxuriates in language; in the role of Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis delivers an immaculate performance; and as a period piece, the film is so painstakingly detailed one can almost smell the polish on the House desks.
Hand on heart, I was not bored for a single moment. But nor was I moved or impressed to the extent that I had hoped to be. Like Obama's first term, perhaps this was simply one movie that could not live up to the hype, or match the stature of its subject. Then again, it behoves me as Honest Ali to point out that it is in the running for 12 Oscars.
Spielberg's picture starts where it does not mean to go on – the battlefield. With scenes as intense and bloody as the beachhead sequence in Saving Private Ryan, the director shows American slaughtering American at close quarters. Further carnage will follow if Lincoln cannot bring the Civil War to a close. But there is more at stake, as Spielberg reminds us in a scene where black Union Army soldiers recite the Gettysburg Address to an as-yet unidentified man. Like believing in God, Spielberg assumes we do not need to see it is Lincoln to know that he is there.
From one battlefield we move to another, Washington, where the Republican President declares his intention to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. These are the dawning months of 1865. The Confederate Army is face down in the mud. The end of the Civil War is coming, and Lincoln fears if the amendment is not passed before peace arrives, slavery will return and the war will have been fought for naught. Yet the country is desperate for peace.
Thus does Kushner fashion the story as a race-against-time tale. It is a shrewd move, bringing an urgency to what might otherwise have been a dusty story of gavels and oratory. Lincoln needs all the help it can get on that front, and Spielberg does his best to provide it. The film's score, by Spielberg regular John Williams, swoops to conquer any attention that might be wavering. Then there is a supporting cast that seems to include every American character actor who has ever had the word "great" or "soon to be great" attached to them, from the outstanding John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) as a political fixer, to the always terrific David Strathairn as William Seward, Lincoln's inspired Secretary of State.
At the head of this A-grade supporting cast stands Tommy Lee Jones playing Thaddeus Stevens, lawyer, abolitionist, and the man who helps Lincoln put the votes in the bag. As in many a movie in which he has starred, Lee Jones could never be mistaken for a mouse in the corner, and so it is here as he bellows and bullies non-believers to the cause.
It is left to Day-Lewis to supply the infinite shades of grey in human character and temperament. This is Lincoln as political slugger rather that Civil War strategist, charming and strong-arming members to his cause, losing his temper along the way. This is Lincoln as a devoted father and a loving but impatient husband to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field). This is Lincoln, in short, as a man of his time rather than a god.
While the film is to be commended for showing him as such, its flashes of humour, and for other moments in which Lincoln stands accused of confusing might with right, it is on the whole deeply reverential of the President. As for the central dramatic device, the big vote, no matter how much a filmmaker tries to make a scene exciting, a vote is still a vote. The most affecting scenes are those between Field and Day-Lewis as man and wife. A more radical take on Lincoln might have made more of Field's character, or have framed events entirely from her viewpoint. As it is, Field does superbly in the role of the fragile but spirited First Lady.
It is Day-Lewis's performance on which the picture stands, and he delivers a performance of eerie brilliance, even if that lilting, reedy voice does sometimes sound uncannily like Bob Dylan's at times. Great flocks naturally to great, and Spielberg has done a remarkable job in giving Lincoln the cinematic stature he deserves. Like the rest of us, though, he remains gazing upwards at a figure out of reach.