out of Five
Running time: 144
Impressively directed and superbly written, this is an absorbing and enjoyable political drama with an Oscar-worthy central performance from Daniel Day-Lewis.
What's it all about?
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Lincoln, despite the title, is not a traditional biopic but instead a dramatisation of President Abraham Lincoln's (Daniel Day-Lewis) attempts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment and outlaw slavery as the Civil War draws to a close. Beginning in January 1865, the film's events take place over just a few weeks as Lincoln, supported by Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), tries everything he can think of to shore up the votes he needs in Congress, a task made more difficult by strong opposition and the fact that Congress had already rejected the Amendment almost a year previously.
Part of Lincoln's strategy involves deploying a trio of less than scrupulous lobbyists (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader) to lean on wavering voters and secure their support by any means necessary (plus ca change, etc), while also apparently delaying negotiations on the ending of the war. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Lincoln clashes with his wife Mary (Sally Field) and tries to dissuade his eldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from joining the army.
Daniel Day-Lewis is terrific as Lincoln, resisting the temptation for grandstanding and instead downplaying it to riveting effect; he also delivers an impressive approximation of Lincoln's relatively high-pitched, nasal voice that works well. There's also superb work from a top-notch supporting cast that includes Spader (comfortably stealing every scene he's in), Nelson, Hawkes and Strathairn as well as a fantastic and deservedly Oscar-nominated performance from Tommy Lee Jones as fiery Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and colourful turns from the likes of Lee Pace (as Fernando Wood) and Michael Stuhlbarg (as George Yeaman).
Tony Kushner's excellent script (in part adapted from a book by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin) is stuffed to the brim with engaging, intelligent dialogue that puts you in mind of a 19th century West Wing. Indeed, while it is fair to describe Lincoln as a two and a half hour film about legislation (they could have retitled it ‘Abraham Lincoln and the Passing of the Thirteenth Amendment’), it is utterly gripping from start to finish and even leaves you wanting more.
Spielberg's direction is impeccably assured throughout, aided by Janusz Kaminski's striking cinematography and a stirring score from longtime collaborator John Williams. In addition, the film is often surprising, resisting, for example, the temptation to fall into either speechifying or sentimentality; indeed, the film as a whole is refreshingly free of the expected biopic clichés, an approach best illustrated by an intriguingly bold stroke in the closing sequences that it would be unfair to reveal here.
Superbly directed and brilliantly written, Lincoln is a literate and thoroughly absorbing political drama with a terrific central performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. Highly recommended.