Perhaps I’m not giving my fellow cinemagoers enough credit, but I do find it surprising that this long, dense account of Abraham Lincoln’s role during the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the American Constitution became a box office success a couple of years back, given that it’s not exactly the kind of film that usually packs out cinemas. Despite its numerous qualities Lincoln is, at times, extremely heavy going, in stark contrast to most films generating similar levels of profit: it demands your concentration throughout and, if you really want to know who’s who and understand what is happening in the film, a degree of familiarity with the subject matter is required beforehand.
Then again it is a Steven Spielberg film. Spielberg’s popularity with the general public has rarely waned, regardless of genre, and that’s one of the reasons he is now enjoying a fifth decade as a successful, august and relevant filmmaker. Jaws, the movie that launched a thousand-and-one summer blockbusters, is 40 years old this year, yet Spielberg still appears to have the magic touch, and his films continue to achieve both critical acclaim and commercial results. Who else could wring $250 million out of a long, dialogue-heavy historical epic such as this? Incredibly, even after adjusting for inflation, Lincoln has proven to be more popular worldwide than one of his biggest sci-fi earners (AI: Artificial Intelligence) and it’s not too far off two other notable efforts (Minority Report, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind). Granted this is about one of the most important periods of American history (if not the most important), but there’s been plenty of apathy toward such films in the past, and few would have predicted this level of financial success.
I say all of this with the usual caveat that huge profits may not necessarily reflect great quality, but Lincoln is the kind of film that demands your admiration for several reasons, and deserves the recognition it received from various critics and judges. It’s not a picture I’m desperate to sit through again anytime soon, but I did lose myself in its grandness, with Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning performance as the 16th US President an obvious highlight.
Even though it was only released two years ago it’s interesting to note the famous faces joining Day-Lewis who have since moved on to bigger roles. The prologue, for example, includes a scene-stealing turn by David Oyelowo as Union soldier Ira Clark that foreshadows his more recent role as Martin Luther King, Jr in Selma. Dane DeHaan appears in the same scene, albeit with a small speaking part, while Adam Driver enjoys a minute or two in Lincoln’s presence later on as telegraph operator Samuel Beckwith.
The famous names and faces stack up beyond the opening credits: Spielberg and Avy Kaufman mined TV’s second coming for notable character actors, including Mad Men’s Jared Harris (playing Ulysses S. Grant), ER’s Gloria Reuben (playing dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley), Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Stuhlbarg (playing congressman George Yeaman, though admittedly he is equally well-known for his big screen roles) and The Wire / Breaking Bad’s David Costabile (playing congressman James Ashley), among others. And this is just the tip of the iceberg: the cast also includes established film actors like Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Jackie Earle Haley, Hal Holbrook and David Strathairn.
I mention all these names for a reason: many of the actors only receive a short amount of time on screen, but nearly all are given a scene or two in which they are allowed to dominate, or shine, a factor that shapes Lincoln and Day-Lewis’s remarkable performance as much as anything else. These actors all get to shout, argue, demand, flounce and complain, and when this is happening outside the House of Representatives you’ll often find Day-Lewis’s President quietly listening, effectively playing second fiddle. Lincoln is depicted throughout as a calm, measured thinker who is happy to let others say their piece while he quietly retains control, a permanent fixture in the metaphorical driving seat; he rarely shows his hand and is a contemplative, steady presence during this period of intense turmoil.
Not that a singular talent like Day-Lewis must feed off the scraps tossed his way by others, of course; there are speeches, there are savoured triumphs in the House of Representatives and on the battlefield, and he’s required to vent his fury on a couple of occasions (not politically, as it happens, but during clashes with son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) and wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Field)). This is all delivered with the authority and presence we have come to expect from the actor; yet even though Lincoln appears in the centre of the frame in many a shot, and even though he is lit dramatically throughout, for a sizeable portion of the film Day-Lewis must hold back and let others hog the limelight. It’s a performance of great restraint, while simultaneously impressing through the actor’s physical and vocal consistency: the stoop and slow shuffle describe a man whose age is catching up with him, while the mellifluous voice suggests ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment and the end of the Civil War will be the last of tired Honest Abe’s major political battles.
Equally impressive is Spielberg’s own restraint: he could have dumbed down Lincoln, which is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, but chose instead to merely include a few audience-friendly concessions to counter the confusion that stems from watching various bearded white men debate, plot and invoke the rights they believe to be God-given. It may be difficult to get a handle on all of the characters but occasionally a caption will reveal important figures and locations, which certainly helps. There’s also just enough expository dialogue to carry you through to the end without any lasting damage done to the film’s carefully-crafted and meticulous realism.
Spielberg also chooses to leaves out two very significant moments in particular: the Gettysburg Address was delivered two years before events depicted here and is only quoted back to Lincoln by Ira Clark, and instead of showing the President’s assassination at Ford’s Theater the director concentrates on the reaction to the news by Lincoln’s youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath). Leaving out these events is a good move; as with other recent and notable biopics Lincoln focuses on a short, important period of its subject’s life – four months in this case – and the screenplay doesn’t get bogged down with unnecessary attention elsewhere; this is a film about the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, first and foremost, and that’s what it sticks to .
Spielberg has made other historical dramas in the past, of course, and has tackled slavery before, though understandably here he focuses almost entirely on the power held by white politicians (‘if you only watch one white saviour movie this year…’ etc). Lincoln still feels like a surprising move, though, in the sense that the director’s films tend to be inclusive, made for everyone to enjoy; here he isn’t compromised by his usual desire for across-the-board appeal, and seems barely interested in pleasing those who have little in the way of patience at all. On top of that even by Spielberg’s standards the efforts made with regard to the period production design are quite staggering: there are a number of beautifully-decorated sets and carefully-made costumes that appear (to my untrained eyes at least) to accurately re-create the era in question, while natural lighting throughout also appears to have been engineered with a painstaking attention to detail.
Of course you know beforehand what it’s going to be like: flags will be raised, John Williams will reserve the most bombastic minutes of his score for the scenes of political and military triumph, and the importance and weight of historical events will ensure an understandably po-faced, serious affair from the first second to the last. As such Lincoln is entirely predictable, but thankfully because of the quality of the performances on offer – Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn and Sally Field in particular are perfect foils for the star – there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had if you appreciate good acting, and it’s great to look at (something of a pre-requisite, I know, but worth stating). The supremely confident Spielberg has few peers at this elite level, and he continues to make impressive, relevant films while many of his 1970s contemporaries have all but retired or have faded into obscurity. His role in this construction is admirable.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Lee Pace, David Costabile, Hal Holbrook, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jackie Earle Haley, Gloria Reuben, Gulliver McGrath, Stephen Henderson, Jared Harris, David Oyelowo
Running Time: 150 minutes