It is a face familiar to us all. Not movie star handsome, but strong and instantly recognisable.
The grey flecked beard. The kind eyes bordered with laughter lines. The trademark hat.
Yes, we’re all familiar with director Steven Spielberg. Perhaps because of that, we can and do take him for granted.
The Academy Award winning director who has brought us: ‘Jaws’; ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’; ‘E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’; ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’ – to name just a few. The producer who brought us: ‘Back to the Future’; ‘Gremlins’ and ‘Poltergeist’. The co-founder of DreamWorks studios, and the wunderkind turned pillar of the movie establishment. We’ve got used to Spielberg bringing out great movies decade after decade, and his prolific output means you’re seldom more than two years away from the next one.
But lest you think I’m writing this as a starry-eyed acolyte who believes Spielberg can do no wrong, let me just make clear that as much as I love the films I’ve listed above, I found the last three films of his I saw disappointing (‘Munich’; ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’; and ‘The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn’ – I’ve yet to see ‘War Horse’).
Now Spielberg has teamed up with Emmy Award winning playwright Tony Kushner (‘Angels in America’) to tackle another piece of American history, and the resulting movie comes garlanded with yet more Academy Award and BAFTA Award nominations.
It’s a project explicitly designed as awards bait, right? America’s greatest living director on America’s greatest president. Tony Kushner, having looked at Aids, now turns his attention to the issue of slavery. Add in Academy Award winning actors Daniel Day-Lewis (‘My Left Foot’; ‘There Will Be Blood’); Sally Field (‘Norma Rae’; ‘Places In The Heart’); Tommy Lee Jones (‘The Fugitive’); and it’s almost pre-ordained that this film be nominated for the big awards.
However the danger with all of that is that from the outside, ‘Lincoln’ seems almost as monolithic as the portrait of President’s Lincoln in Monument Valley, Utah. It’s the cinematic equivalent of being told to ‘eat your greens’. Go and see this movie, it’s IMPORTANT, it’s about an IMPORTANT subject. Worst of all: YOU’LL LEARN SOMETHING.
So let’s strip away all of that awards hoopla, and all of that stuff about this being an important work of Art and get to the film itself.
‘Lincoln’ tells the story of Abe’s attempt to get the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution ratified by Congress, to make Slavery illegal in the U.S. and safeguard his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. As if that wasn’t enough, he was balancing the demands of the Civil War against the Confederate states, the warring elements within his own party, the conflicts within his family, and within himself.
This is no great sweeping biopic that skims over the highlights of a well-spent life. ‘Lincoln’ focuses on just one small portion of President Lincoln’s life. This narrow focus enables Tony Kushner (adapting the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin) to paint a broad canvas with hundreds of speaking parts. The film is as much a procedural about U.S. democracy as it is about the man himself. We get a major subplot involving Radical Anti-slavery campaigner Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) allying himself with his former enemy. We’re shown the shadier side of lobbying, and Conservative Republicans attempting to facilitate a peace in the Civil War.
Spielberg has always had an eye for great writing. In the past he’s worked with the likes of Richard Matheson, Lawrence Kasdan, Melissa Mathison, Tom Stoppard and David Koepp, to name but a few. But this may be the first time he’s truly deferred to the writer’s vision. Here Spielbergian touches are so far dialled down as to be invisible to all but the most eagle-eyed of viewers. His eye is as assured as ever, and the cinematography of long-time collaborator Janusz Kaminski has a sepia toned beauty, but this is ultimately a writer’s and actors’ showcase.
Like the President Lincoln presented here, this is a movie that loves to talk. So it’s as well that the dialogue the “Who’s Who?” of acting talent got to perform is good. Some scenes, like President Lincoln’s encounter with a Black Corporal (David Oyelowo – ‘Jack Reacher’) who quotes his own Gettysburg Address lines back to him, show too obviously the hand of a dramatist who’s making a didactic point. But even those scenes still work as dramatic scenes.
This talkiness may put off some people. At times it does feel like the movie boils down to scene after scene of be-wigged and be-whiskered men haranguing each other. But that’s ignoring how witty much of the movie is, with Tommy Lee Jones garnering the lion’s share of zingers. There’s fine comic support too, from dodgy politicos James Spader (‘Secretary’), John Hawkes (‘The Sessions’) and Tim Blake Nelson (‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’), playing nicely against David Strathairn’s (‘Good Night and Good Luck’) straight-laced Secretary of State, William H. Seward. There is also respite from the political struggles in the nicely judged scenes between Lincoln and his wife Mary (Sally Field), and those with his sons Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt – ‘Dark Knight Rises’) and Tad (Gulliver McGrath – ‘Hugo’).
Ultimately though, a movie called ‘Lincoln’ will stand or fall based on its Lincoln. Spielberg reportedly courted Daniel Day-Lewis for years before getting his man, and Day-Lewis repays his faith admirably here. Surrounded by great actors, he rises to the occasion and gives a truly great performance. This is magical and magnetic stuff, with Day-Lewis seeming to disappear inside the imposing presence of President Abraham Lincoln. He richly deserves his many award nominations and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t win the Best Actor Oscar.
Perhaps ‘Lincoln’ is too in awe of its leading character to truly show all sides of the man. We get glimpses of darkness in scenes with his wife and his son Robert, but generally this is a very warm portrait. There’s also a sense that Lincoln is being painted as a secular American saint, a martyr to the cause of the United States of America (particularly in a coda scene that depicts a fallen Lincoln like the crucified Jesus surrounded by his apostles). There’s occasional cheesiness too with the John Williams score underlining any emotions in bold minor-scale curlicues.
However, none of these minor qualms can distract from the movie’s many strengths. ‘Lincoln’ is Spielberg’s best movie for a decade; moving, amusing and absorbing. Don’t be put off by the Awards hype – go see it.