Within Steven Spielberg’s illustrious career, the human loss through war (Saving Private Ryan) and the immoral notion of slavery (Amistad) have been regularly thrown into his cinematic melting pot. So it was only a matter of time before he integrated such respective elements, whilst raising the stakes with the added layer/pressure of paying tribute to one of America’s most groundbreaking figures. The 16th President of the United States.. Mr Abraham Lincoln. Past projects of a similar vein have had a tendency to ‘drip’ with controversy as Hollywood feels obliged to twist the political framework. ‘Clothed in immense power’.. Does the blockbusting director break the habit?
‘Lincoln’ chronicles the turbulent final yet crucial months of Abraham’s reign. Played by There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Day Lewis, we’re immediately informed of the inenviable balancing act he attempts to audaciously juggle and succeed with. Fresh off a re-election in January 1865, America remains divided and immersed in fierce Civil warfare. Eager to ‘stop the bleeding’, Lincoln deems it imperative that the drawing up of the historic 13th Amendment, declaring the abolishment of slavery is passed within the confines of the House of Representatives.
Inevitably, his plans are crippled by opposition. A classic verbal tussle between Republicians (Led by Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens) and Democrats commences as President Lincoln uses every trick in the book, to secure the required votes despite the general consensus that abolishing slavery would significantly damage the economy. A calculated risk also, as the Amendment is deemed a cynical ploy to end the war threatening more lives of fellow Americans, instead of relying on the likely economic shortfalls from the South.
Spielberg’s renowned for grounding his films with an underlying family dynamic and he’s clearly in no mood to disregard here. Still reeling from past emotional trauma, we witness the evident strain on his relationship with Mary Todd (Sally Field) whilst weighed down by duties. Siblings prove notoriously difficult to handle, as Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Robert Lincoln proves as he wrestles with his own conscience.
Instead of smothering the cinematic interpretation with sweeping visual trickery/camerawork, Spielberg opts for a refreshingly restrained yet immersive approach almost making a mockery of his usual ‘style’ in the process. Whilst occasionally laboured in its pacing especially within the early exchanges, the director’s enthusiasm for the material is evident in every frame. Sacrificing pulse pounding battle sequences for lengthy yet compelling rounds of political ‘sparring’ may prompt dismay. However the fluidity and sheer intelligence of Tony Kushner’s (Angels In America) razor sharp script shines through, aiding the authenticity of the portrayals and the production.
As anticipated, the performance plaudits are already being laid upon the shoulders of Mr Daniel Day Lewis and unsurprisingly, he’s outstanding here as Lincoln. Unafraid to bear the complexities of his demeanour and weariness of his physical appearance, yet utterly profound and defiant in his relentless pursuit for a resolution, his depiction demands your attention and deservedly so. DDL isn’t short of fine company, with Tommy Lee Jones’ spiky performance as Thaddeus and Sally Field’s conflicted turn as his headstrong wife worthy mentions.
Understated in its inevitable sentimentality. Immaculate in its avoidance of falling into the trap of just being a glorified ‘history lesson’. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ is riveting and rewarding cinema and arguably the director’s most impressive work of recent times.