That Steven Spielberg’s latest opus Lincoln is in pole position to sweep the board at the various upcoming awards ceremonies is no sort of surprise: in many ways it’s exactly the sort of weighty and respectful historical drama that’s been a safe choice for these kinds of self-congratulatory red-carpet-and-tuxedo-fests for years. In other ways however it’s unusual, not the standard Hollywood treatment of a moment of national crisis at all, whereby tricky nuances are ironed out and characters are simplified or misrepresented. It feels to me like a harking back to the type of serious high-minded movie They Don’t Make Anymore, like All The President’s Men or Anatomy Of A Murder, in which the bulk of the drama is in the dialogue and real-life legal and personal fudges and compromises are embraced and explored by the film-makers, rather than being dodged. It took me a while to fully tune in to, but this is a surprisingly absorbing and intelligent take on history. In some respects it’s more like watching the last couple of episodes of a prestigious HBO television series than a blockbuster movie – in places it’s downright educational.
What it isn’t, to start with, is an Abraham Lincoln bio-pic*. The film focusses entirely on the first few months of 1865, a time in which Lincoln is attempting to resolve not one, but two, major issues of American business: the Civil War that’s been raging for the last four years, and the abolition of slavery. These issues are of course linked, and the president’s challenge is to find a path by which the successful resolution of one doesn’t de-rail progress on the other. He’s within reach of getting an anti-slavery amendment to the constitution passed, but he still has enough vociferous opponents in the House of Representatives to scupper it, and he knows that he only has this narrow window of opportunity following his decisive re-election to get the thing signed before traditional party politicking will resume.
Lincoln the movie shows admirable restraint. Given that it’s set during a particularly bloody and divisive, and therefore potentially very dramatic and cinematic, conflict, it’s remarkable how little of its two and a half hour running time is spent on the battlefields – really, it’s just a short sequence at the very beginning, and one or two scenes showing the cessation of hostilities towards the end. Most of the film takes place in rooms (rooms in The White House, the chamber of the House of Representatives, some legal chambers, the occasional bar or restaurant) and what mainly happens in these rooms is that middle-aged or elderly men talk to each other. Typically, an obstacle to progress will arise which will cause general dismay or anger until the man in the stove pipe hat gets to speak, and when he does the difficulties start to melt away. Lincoln as depicted here is a hugely talented cajoler and persuader and inspirer, able to see his way through impenetrable thickets of legalese and intransigence, and often softening the mood with a folksy tale or reminisce before proposing risky and courageous solutions to the problems that come up. Tony Kushner’s script (from a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin) is intelligent, literate and full of detail and requires the viewer to lean in and actively engage a lot more than your average Hollywood screenplay, but it’s worth it – the climactic scenes of the vote on the amendment are truly exciting and a worthy pay-off.
If you’re going to make stuff like this work on the screen it does of course help if you’ve got one of the greatest actors working today in the lead role. Daniel Day-Lewis has got excellent form in portraying larger-than-life figures from American folklore (witness the terrifying Bill Cutting from Gangs Of New York and There Will Be Blood‘s equally sociopathic Daniel Plainview) and here he nails it completely, with the aid of a false nose and that highly distinctive beard. He renders Abe as fragile but charismatic with a high papery voice that nonetheless commands attention, and he rightly dominates all the scenes he’s in. It’s not my favourite performance in the film though: that would be Tommy Lee Jones’s ornery congressman Thaddeus Stevens, whose hilariously bluff manner of doing business masks an unusually enlightened set of attitudes for the time.
Spielberg seems to put out big-budget films at an almost inhuman rate, and while you can’t fault him for spectacle there often feels like there’s something missing at the centre of his stories. That’s definitely not the case with Lincoln. I liked it a lot, maybe even enough to think about working on some elaborate facial hair of my own.
*If you’re in the market for one and you don’t mind a bit of artistic licence, you could have a look at this interesting slice of counter-history.