“Lincoln” is an unexpected triumph. You expect it to be a talky biopic, that as a consequence is dry and dusty. It is talky, but it’s also thrilling. This is down to the precise vision of Steven Spielberg, who gives the story wonderful coherence. He doesn’t need to be loud and flashy; he’s making a movie about a political hero.
It’s taken a long time to get to cinema screens too. Steven Spielberg has owned the rights to Doris Kearn Goodwin’s biography “Team of Rivals” since 2001. Liam Neeson had been on board to play the 16th President of The United States from the start, until he pulled out in 2010 when Spielberg wanted to get filming underway. Playwright Tony Kushner was given screenwriting duties, and provided Spielberg with a 550-page script. Spielberg removed the last 80 pages and went to work. Instead of making an epic biopic, the director decided to dedicate the movie to the fiery final months of Lincoln’s presidency.
To be more specific, “Lincoln” is about the President’s attempts to pass the 13th Amendment – abolishing slavery. Here we have a quietly intellectual man, who knows that the very soul of his nation is at stake. Tony Kushner is more than aware of that, and it shows in his clinically planned screenplay. He knows that slavery came very close to continuing with the South contemplating a return to the Union. For Lincoln, it was now or never.
He’s even willing to give up a peaceful end to the Civil War in order to get his amendment passed in the House of Representatives, a place that feels like a grand theatre. Because Spielberg ditches the idea of biography in favour of a precise approach, the focus is very much on the heated situation, and the crisis hammering at Lincoln’s door. Many movies like this reveal a lot about the director’s mindset. Oliver Stone applied paranoia to “JFK”, and poked fun at an easy target with “W”. With “Lincoln”, we can see that Spielberg clearly admires the President. He likes hiss passion, and his quiet cerebral nature. Spielberg and Lincoln themselves have rather a lot in common.
Take for example their shared subtle intelligence. Steven Spielberg is often accused of being too restrained as a director, but “Lincoln” proves those naysayers wrong. He demands that the audience pay full attention, all the way through it’s two-and-a-half length. Every line of dialogue is thoughtful, and the language leaps from the screen. Every camera angle is precisely executed, and often have more to say than the dialogue. It’s designed with a consuming dark brown and grey tint, with flowing clouds of tobacco thickening the air.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln is surrounded by a very strong supporting cast. There’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’ son. In the rather minor family based storylines, Lincoln attempts to protect Robert from enlisting, more than aware of all his other American sons who have fallen in the Civil War. Sally Field is Mary Lincoln, the President’s wife who drains him with her concern and heartbreak. James Spader is also a delight as the wonderfully moustached William N. Bilbo, a Republican once imprisoned by Lincoln, now lobbying for the amendment to be passed. But no one is having more fun than Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a man who could strike fear into any Congressman on the floor of the House.
It goes without saying though that this is Daniel Day-Lewis’ film. His performance is remarkably authentic, which isn’t really surprising for an actor who clearly immerses himself in research. It’s easy to see how Lewis and Spielberg make such a good partnership. Despite the final five minutes of the film shifting into melodrama, “Lincoln” is heartfelt, delightfully intelligent and gripping right until the very end. It’s the only way you can tell a story about a man who raised the bar high, and then had the audacity to clear it.
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