Daniel Day-Lewis’ method acting looks certain to win him his third Best Actor Oscar in Spielberg’s account of Lincoln’s battle to abolish slavery in 1865.
Lincoln is an intelligent film. Instead of attempting a biopic of the 16th President of the United States, director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner (working from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling book, Team of Rivals) focus on the final four months of Lincoln’s presidency, in which he was fighting to pass the 13th Amendment which would outlaw slavery and thus hopefully also end the civil war that had plagued America for the past four years. In this, it could be argued that Lincoln owes much to recent television series – crime dramas such as The Killing and Spiral which focus on one case over a 10-episode arc, or the hugely popular political dramas The West Wing and Borgen which give the viewer an intimate picture of politicians’ personal lives, and what takes places behind the scenes.
Day-Lewis is predictably brilliant as Lincoln: he looks like him (a heavily lined, whiskered and weather-beaten face, appearing much older than his fifty-six years), has assumed his voice (according to contemporary reports, Lincoln had a high-pitched tenor) and his distinctive, shuffling gait. He both speaks and moves slowly, and you can almost see his shoulders drooping under the weight of the task he has set himself.
Spielberg, Kushner and Day-Lewis manage to convey Lincoln’s intelligence, the awe and respect he inspired in others (the only reference to the famous Gettysburg Address is in the opening scene of the film, where two soldiers quote it at a seated Lincoln), his sense of humour (there’s a marvellous moment where Lincoln is about to address a waiting crowd and he removes his stovepipe hat where he has hidden the piece of paper with his speech on it, only for the speech to be a few words long!), and his frustrating tendency to illustrate his arguments with obscure parables and digressions (‘Not another story!’ someone exclaims at one point). It is a brilliant portrait of a man, neither melodramatic nor overly-sentimental, even-handed in its portrayal of Lincoln’s strengths and failings.
Lincoln is almost a ‘spot the actor’ with almost one hundred and fifty speaking parts (look out for David Strathairn, Jackie Earle Haley, John Hawkes, Jared Harris, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce McGill), but it’s Tommy Lee Jones in an incongruous wig who almost steals the show as the Republican Thaddeus Stevens, steering the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives with some blistering speeches. It is only at the end that you realise just how dear the issue of slavery is to this scathing old man. Jones also shares a wonderfully entertaining face-off with Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln at a White House reception, a verbal jousting in which both actors remain diplomatic on the surface but you can feel the resentment seething underneath. Field is wonderful as Lincoln’s grieving wife, still unable to cope with the death of her son Willie three years before, as hysterical and agitated as Lincoln is calm and thoughtful, yet also managing to convey Mary’s strength and intelligence.
Lincoln is not only superbly acted, it’s also brilliantly shot and photographed: Spielberg’s long-time collaborator Janusz Kaminski has created a world of murk and shadow, almost devoid of colour, making the back-room conversations even more weighty and atmospheric. Smoke from men’s pipes whirls about, dust motes hover in the air, and from the gloom rise Kushner’s intricate words.
Lincoln documents one man’s battles, at home with his wife and son, and at work. The scene of the final vote on the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives is an emotional, and educational, one. Even though we know the outcome, we watch with baited breath and clenched fists (much like the black men and women in the gallery) as each man stands up to cast his vote.
At two and a half hours, Lincoln is a long film, and it requires constant attention, rich as it is with political maneuvering, wrangling and terminology. The first thirty minutes felt fractionally slow, but once you are used to the rich dialogue and the murky sets, it’s an immersive experience with some towering performances.