Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sally Field, David Strathairn, John Hawkes, James Spader
Running time: 150 minutes
In the midst of the bloody Civil War between the Northern and Southern states of the US, president Lincoln (Day-Lewis) struggles to pass an act that will emancipate the black slaves against fierce opposition.
Every new Spielberg film comes with a complementary dose of anticipation and excitement. Probably the world’s most famous and successful director, he has rarely put a foot wrong in his forty-year career, gifting us with so many of our favourite films from Jaws to Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park to ET to Saving Private Ryan. And now he brings us Lincoln, another period piece chronicling the lead up to the end of the American Civil War as Abe Lincoln, in his second term in office, attempts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution which will abolish slavery. With this, Spielberg has abolished Indy 4.
In my recent review of Flight (which you can read here), I lapped praise on Denzel Washington for his performance of an alcoholic pilot, and resolutely approved his sixth Oscar nomination. I stand by every word of that, but after witnessing Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln I can’t help but feel that everyone else comes off second best (no offence everyone else). Without a doubt in my mind, this is his best ever performance. Everyone has known for a long time what a fantastic actor DDL is, but what makes this one so outstanding is the fact that we don’t think we’re watching Daniel Day-Lewis play Lincoln; we think we’re actually watching Abraham Lincoln. There’s a lot of talk about how good he is in this, but it can’t really be described adequately. It has to be witnessed. It’s the kind of performance that makes you question how it’s possible for someone to be so good.
Day-Lewis didn’t have much to base this performance on; as far as I’m aware there’s only one known photograph of the sixteenth president of the US, and obviously no video or audio to scrub through. But regardless of this hindrance, everything he does makes us believe we’re seeing the real Lincoln. Every expression, word and movement bleeds with authenticity, and I think Spielberg saw that on set. There’s a noticeable decision throughout the film to use longer takes whenever Day-Lewis is on-screen. An audience generally doesn’t like staring at the same shot for too long, so it’s a common technique in filmmaking to cut between angles every few seconds to keep things lively and moving (look out for it the next time you watch a film). It’s a perfectly fine technique, but I do love it when a director doesn’t feel the need to break the shot, and just lets the actor or actress go with it. That’s exactly what Spielberg does here, and it pays off because Day-Lewis is just so captivating. You’ll struggle to peel your eyes away whenever he’s on-screen.
There is, in Denzel Washington’s words, some stiff, stiff competition for Best Actor at this year’s Academy Awards, but Day-Lewis just has to win. I can’t see any other outcome. You may or may not know by now that he originally turned down the role – several times. He even wrote Spielberg a hand written letter explaining why he felt he wasn’t right for the part, but Spielberg simply wouldn’t make the film without him. Thank god for his stubbornness, and thank god for Leonardo DiCaprio, who in the end convinced Day-Lewis to do it.
Comforting the troops
A lot of praise is getting thrown around here, but it wouldn’t be right to not mention Tony Kushner. The script is the foundation of any film, and he really gave this a solid one. Solid, albeit wordy. It is almost two and a half hours of talking, and I can understand that it might not work for everyone on a dramatic level, but try not to let the lack of ‘action’ put you off. This is just as gripping and enthralling as you could ask for. Kushner has tapped into the 1860s with skill, filling his script with compelling exchanges, poetic dialogue and a real intricate understanding of the times. The words are excellent, and the people saying them are even better.
As ever, John Williams’ score is flowing with grandeur and sentiment. For my money he hasn’t quite bettered any of his work since the 90s, but he always provides the necessary chords to match Spielberg’s vision. His work in Lincoln has been criticized by many for being too intrusive, but, if anything, I thought it wasn’t intrusive enough. It’s a quiet film and very rarely does Williams make his presence felt. I would have liked him to speak up a little more. Of course, not so much that it would overpower a particular scene, just so much that we might be reminded he’s there.
It’s interesting that Lincoln is in cinemas at the same time as Django Unchained. Stylistically polar opposites, both these Oscar-nominated films deal with the same sensitive subject matter but in completely different ways. Where one is a very grounded drama, the other is an exploitative, comedic genre mash-up. They’d make a really interesting (but long) double-bill. And on the subject of the Oscars, I would love to see Django win, but it won’t. Even more so I’d love to see Argo win, but it probably won’t. But Lincoln is a fairly safe bet. Even though it wouldn’t be particularly far outside of the Academy’s comfort zone, Spielberg’s latest masterpiece does deserve the accolade, and I’ll be perfectly happy to see it collect that golden statue.
By the end I felt like I hadn’t blinked since the opening frame. This is a wonderful, intelligent and captivating piece of cinema that, if nothing else, just reaffirms what an accomplished filmmaker Spielberg is.