Slaves and their master – ★★★★
Despite being released in the US in mid-November and having some of the wind taken out of its sail by the festive leak of an academy screener, Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln is still one of the most eagerly-awaited films of the season.
This anticipation is primarily down to the reviews being bestowed upon the performance of one man – Daniel Day-Lewis. #DDL takes on the 16th President of United States following his re-election to a second term as he looks to rush through the slavery-abolishing 13th amendment to the constitution.
It’s a compliment to the team behind the film that you forget after about ten minutes that this man’s story isn’t going to have a happy ending (SPOILER Lincoln gets shot!!). Instead of this impending doom we quickly get caught up in the Republican party’s inner workings as we see the cogs turning in Lincoln’s head while he works out how he can possibly get the requisite votes to pass the bill in the House of Representatives. Tony Kushner’s script sets up passage of the bill as the thing that will end the American Civil War – or to put it bluntly, it’s basically now or never for both emancipation and peace.
How Lincoln gets his votes may be surprising to those of us with only a simple working knowledge of pre-20th century American politics. Through a series of deals, promises and trades (don’t you DARE mention the word “bribes”!), Abe and his hired team of lobbyists set about convincing the required number of Democrats to go against their party policy and vote for the amendment. The comparisons with today’s ongoing dead-lock between a Republican-controlled House and a Democrat-led Senate and President are worth acknowledging, although here the roles are reversed. I will admit it’s fun to imagine today’s Democrat deities like Carter, Clinton and Obama being pro-slavery like their party forefathers.
The leading man’s performance is what most people are paying the admission price for and thanks be to God he doesn’t disappoint. Of course the man never disappoints and even in a weird film like Rob Marshall’s Nine he’s still eminently watchable. His 6″2′ frame means it’s not too much of a stretch (literally) to embody the 6″4′ President as he brings to life a man who most people will only know from a few staid photographs and illustrations. Even though we’ve never seen or heard this man before, you still get a real sense of the aura that surrounded him in those weeks following his landslide victory in the election.
DDL’s screen presence is so great that even as the film quickly settles into what it is – a film about white men sitting around in dark rooms talking about letting black people get paid for their work – your attention rarely wanes. The film’s two and a half hour runtime features so many long, dialogue-heavy scenes that with lesser men working from a lesser script you would quickly get bored. It’s also worth nothing the efforts of the supporting cast. Tommy Lee Jones is taking the plaudits for his take on the wig-wearing sympathiser Thaddeus Stephens, but the film is littered with at least 20 familiar faces meaning you could spend the whole film with the IMDB app open playing the “I know him from something…” game. A quick tip of my hat to James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson for playing Lincoln’s legislators, bringing some much-needed humour to proceedings.
Kushner’s script only wanes when it comes to Lincoln’s home-life, Sally Fields’ take on the slightly cracked Mary Todd Lincoln is irritating and you certainly cherish the time spent away from her and her two sons (Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Gulliver McGrath). Of course no Spielberg film can really exist without some Daddy issues, but we could have done without it this time.
The film may be a must for history or film buffs, but it’s so dense and heavy that it may not appeal to everyone’s interests in the way that many of this year’s other Best Picture nominees could claim to. But the film has more heart and tension than you would think possible for a lengthy political drama and Spielberg and his choice of President deserve major credit for this.
As a final thought it’s worth considering that the big issue of America’s shameful history of slavery is also dealt with in very different ways in another winter release, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (our review) and the upcoming Steve McQueen effort 12 Years a Slave. It’s going to be one hell of a thematic trilogy to consider by year’s end…
USA / Directed By: Steven Spielberg / Written By: Tony Kushner / Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes / 150min / Drama / Release: 25 January 2013 (Ireland, UK), 16 November 2012 (USA, Canada)
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