Director Stephen Spielberg is now in the phase of his career where he chooses personal projects that he believes are important. Notable, worthy stories just waiting to be told to a wider audience.
Lincoln, perhaps the most celebrated of American Presidents, presiding over the end of the devastating American Civil war, together with the emancipation of those in slavery within the US, clearly falls into this category.
To cover Lincoln’s early life and achievements might take several films, so Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner have decided, rightly or wrongly, to ignore Lincoln’s early life. The screenplay focuses on the end of the war and more specifically, the in-depth political machinations necessary, to allow slavery to be abolished, before becoming a bargaining chip upon the surrender of the Confederate army.
As we join the story, despite earlier setbacks, the war is going “well” under Ulysses S. Grant. Wholesale, futile slaughter is continuing to occur but the war of attrition favours the “Union” and all indications are that the war is won.
Lincoln foresees his dream of passing the 13th amendment to allow slaves the right to be free, will never pass Congress, once the South rejoins the Union. Effectively an agonizing choice, if the war ends too quickly, the opportunity the pass the amendment disappears. Delaying the end of the war consigns countless thousands to an early grave or the possibility of mutilation on the battlefield.
To put the conflagration into context, historians estimate as many as 750,000 or more soldiers were killed during the war. More than the combined total of American casualties in all wars fought subsequently. Some 50,000 casualties at Gettysburg over three days alone.
The screenplay, based on the book “Team of Rivals” attempts to portray the necessary horse trading, cajoling, threats and favour induced vote “buying”, required to secure support to allow the amendment to pass. The story in many ways remains relevant with the state of modern politics, with fixed position stalemates and general intransigence very much the order of the day.
Without the right actor anchoring the story, the whole enterprise could resemble a high school play gone badly wrong, with a tall actor, dodgy beard and Stovepipe hat incongruously perched on his head. Fortunately the director persuaded the only actor that could inhabit the character believably to take on the role.
Daniel Day Lewis “is” Lincoln, at least we think he is. Despite photographs, there are no recordings of his voice and therefore Lewis creates a reedy, “olde Worlde” timbre to his voice, mannerisms and posture.
It is likely another best actor Oscar statue will be added to the Lewis mantelpiece, from an acting point of view, he is exemplary. Lewis is totally believable and receives sterling support from a large list of supporting actors, notably Sally Field as his rather fragile wife, Jospeh Gordon Lovitt as one of his sons, Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), David Strathairn (William Seward) and James Spader (WN Bilbo).
The period detail is excellent, production values are what you expect of a Spielberg production, directorial flourishes are almost non existent and the John Williams score is subdued but effective. After the directors recent rose tinted and sentimental “War Horse”, it is good to see a realistic and mature approach to the horrors depicted. Battle scenes are very limited but the tone is dark and ominous, bad things are clearly occurring and Lincoln knows he possesses the power to stop them, if he so chooses.
It is historical fact that Lincoln loved recounting stories to illustrate his point and Lewis delivers these beautifully, despite his cabinets evident exasperation. Lincoln himself received very little formal education and came from humble beginnings, acquiring knowledge through voracious reading.
So an important story, with fine acting, costumes, sets and production values, surely a crowd pleaser?
Unfortunately, for the average International cinema goer without a deep interest in the minutiae of American politics and Machiavellian art of acquiring political votes, this is dull, dusty and rather boring watch. Worthy of course and certainly staple viewing for US high school students and without question, the best and likely the last film on the subject.
Oscar voters will of course bestow the film with many awards and box office suggests, as expected, that the film will perform much better at home than abroad.
A historical drama, deserving of five stars in many ways but only two from an audience experience, therefore settling on the above result, which is both deserving and infuriating at the same time.
Despite being worthy, this makes for a difficult and rather tedious watch, almost as if the director has forgotten why people go to the cinema in the first place. Which is a pity, bearing in mind the historic achievement depicted, which 150 years later, is difficult to believe anyone could conceivably vote against.