Director: Steven Spielberg
Major Players: Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones
Out Of Five? 4
With ten BAFTA nominations and thirteen Oscar nods under its belt, all the talk was of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln sweeping the board – until recently. The incomprehensible lack of a Best Director mention for Argo seems to have done Ben Affleck’s film more good than harm and it’s now being touted as the most likely Best Picture winner. One thing is for sure: it will take more than a combination of fire, flood and Act of God to prevent Daniel Day Lewis winning Best Actor for his portrayal of the 16th President of the United States.
Let’s tackle this right away. Is he as good as everybody says? Yes, he is. And there’s probably not much I can add to everything that’s already been said. But the other contenders for Best Actor at any of the forthcoming awards must know that, come the ceremony, all they’re going to get is a night out. He is flawless, from his loping walk and stooped shoulders, to his careworn half smile. And, if there is just a tint of rose in the portrait, it’s not weakened by it.
This is not a biography in the conventional sense, but a political picture combined with a history lesson, focusing on the last few months of Lincoln’s life: just re-elected for a second term, he is determined to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that would effectively abolish slavery and bring the Civil War to an end. The Senate ratified the bill some months ago, but he has a mountain to climb if he is going to obtain the necessary majority in Congress.
As a political film, Lincoln contains a huge amount of talking – as you would expect. Some might find that there’s too much but, for those who like films about politics, this delivers by the bucket load, with all the machinations, nuances and subtleties you could ever wish for.
Even Lincoln himself – Honest Abe – isn’t averse to the murkier waters of politics to get his way. Pragmatist Abe is more accurate. He doesn’t shrink from engaging in darker political arts to achieve his ends – just as long as he can’t be directly associated with them. He is clear in his aims, but very adept at playing the self-educated country boy with his down home stories that always have a political point to them.
While the film doesn’t fail in holding your interest, it does have a curious air of detachment. Perhaps this is because the politicians have to hold on to an element of objectivity. Whatever its cause, it does spill over into the audience on occasions.
The black people we see are primarily symbolic. The two soldiers who fought in the Civil War, the Lincoln’s housekeeper, Thaddeus Stevens’ housekeeper and the black witnesses to the actual vote passing the Amendment – none of them are fully-rounded characters. And, interestingly, you never see the face or hear from the most telling of them all. Early in the film, a group of senior congressmen are discussing the Amendment over coffee and one receives his cup and saucer from the hands of a black servant. That hand is all we see of him or her – and it’s doubtful that the congressmen sees it at all.
Some of the most revealing scenes are actually domestic. Lincoln and his wife Mary (Sally Field) have a fractured relationship, due to the death of their middle son. Neither of them has stopped grieving in their own way and neither is able to comfort the other. This erupts into a passionate, intense argument that shows us the President isn’t just weighed down by the powers of his office. And it’s not until the end of the film that we discover the discreet relationship between Stevens and his housekeeper Lydia, which tells us much about the man.
The cast is peppered with familiar faces. Tommy Lee Jones is at his crabby best as firebrand Thaddeus Stevens. Granite faced and brilliantly articulate, he has some of the best lines. When somebody knocks on his office door, he declares, “It opens!” There are many more – John Hawkes, James Spader, Joseph Gordon- Levitt, Jackie Earle Haley and even Law And Order’s S Epatha Merkeson. But so many well-known faces become something of a distraction as you tick yet another off the list. In that way, Lincoln is reminiscent of the older style of epic.
But that’s a minor quibble. Lincoln is a good film – and a film for its time. Especially for American audiences who have just elected their first black President for a second term. Abe would have been proud – and he’d probably have given the film a leisurely nod of approval as well.
This review can now be downloaded as a podcast: http://www.cyberears.com/index.php/Show/audio/5984