When you consider the diversity of work that Steven Spielberg has produced over his long and successful career, it remains a staggering feat that he can elicit such powerful emotional responses in his audiences, whatever the genre, whatever the setting. His films have a grasp on how to pull at the audience’s heartstrings while simultaneously immersing them into an incredibly compelling time and place. Lincoln is no exception to this and yet doesn’t rely on the expected tropes that you would usually look for in a Spielberg film, its success lying in the director’s decision to let its extraordinary story speak for itself.
Adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’ extensive biography of Honest Abe Team of Rivals and with a script that in its original drafts was over 500 pages long, Spielberg and writer Tony Kuschner worked away at their chosen angle of one of America’s most famous leaders and ultimately focussed on the final few months of his life and in turn his endeavours to pass the 13th Amendment, a ruling that would outlaw the slave trade, through the heavily divided House of Representatives. With such an extensive history behind his career, a full length film could have been made out of any chapter of Lincoln’s life and the filmmakers are wise enough and disciplined enough in their storytelling not to attempt to give us his entire backstory, allowing the audience to be drawn into the story without distractions of flashback.
The film does to some extent throw you into the deep end of the historical context of the American Civil War and the political machinations that occurred behind it. It essentially runs as a dialogue heavy political procedural, a window into the division inherent in the American democratic system, with the Republicans fighting for change against a heavily conservative Democratic party (the opposite of the way it is today). Spielberg’s success with this film lies in his ability to take step back from the story and keep what matters at the forefront: the characters and the script. While the film remains a brilliantly realised period piece and Spielberg’s choice of camera work and lighting perfect for conveying the almost claustrophobic nature of these political meetings, he rarely feels the need to point the audience’s sympathies in the right direction as he often does in other films. The John Williams score is much more discreet and the camera doesn’t feel the need to use trickery to excite the scene, with the exception of the final five minutes of the film which seem rather unnecessary in the context of the rest of it, though not enough to shatter the impact of the proceedings which at the best of times will have you ready to rise from your seat and applaud.
The action is always engaging thanks largely to the outstanding ensemble cast, held together by a stellar turn from Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln. While some could complain that Lewis’ performance is too cold to sympathise with, the reality is that he achieves exactly the right balance of standing as the monument to the great emancipator and as the frail old man who seeks only to better his country while dealing with the pressures of keeping a family safe in war-time. His great care in his movement and in his speech deliver a performance that captivates whenever he is on screen and genuinely leaves you forgetting that you’re watching an actor doing an impression; you are watching Abraham Lincoln. Great credit must go to Sally Fields’ portrayal of Lincoln’s wife whose character is almost as difficult to penetrate as her stoic husband’s, as well as a fantastic performance from Tommy Lee Jones as a radical Republican who must choose how much he is willing to compromise his values in the face of heavy opposition, much like Lincoln himself.
To dismiss Lincoln as another sentimental Spielberg flick is to ignore what a terrifically engaging and bravely inventive piece of film-making it is. Delivering a story that deals with heavy political dialogue and yet never once bores you: an astonishing cast, an astonishing script and an astonishing vision.
Lincoln (2013), directed by Steven Spielberg, is distributed in the UK by Twentieth Century Fox, Certificate 12A