Cinematic chameleon, Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood, Gangs of New York), has morphed into his latest incarnation, President Abraham Lincoln, for Steven Spielberg’s (Warhorse, Raiders of the Lost Ark) biopic Lincoln, bringing two of the biggest names in modern cinema together for the first time.
Munich Screenwriter Tony Kushner dips into Doris Kearns Goodwin book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, to focus on the last few months of Lincoln’s life, which centres on Lincoln’s attempt to re-establish the Union.
Its 1865, the American civil war is in its fourth year and Lincoln believes the war against the confederate states can be won by introducing a 13th amendment to the US Constitution, abolishing slavery and servitude.
Day-Lewis embodies America’s 16th president and his performance as the legendary orator is transfixing. Channelling the voice and charisma of Bill Clinton, the method actor portrays the gangly politician as an amusing and amiable family man who has grown weary of politics, fighting and death.
Seen as a man of words and of wisdom, Lincoln’s cordial approach and incessant storytelling does begin to grind and the implication that that a broken nation can be repaired with a few anecdotes is at best simplistic.
Lincoln is a film less interested in the drama of the battlefields, but the political shenanigans in Washington and the nuts and bolts of the American legislative process. Ex-lawyer President Lincoln is under pressure to win the war, amidst divisions in his own party while trying to enact an historical piece of legislation.
When the focus was on the front line, Spielberg’s sentimentality and chest-thumping patriotism is in overdrive, particularly the opening scene during a sickly sweet rendition of the Gettysburg Address to rousing music. Renowned composer John Williams (Harry Potter, Star Wars) added little to the film with his score, only highlighting some of the less convincing directorial decisions.
Switching between the White House and House of Congress, we are privy to politics of government and the family pressures Lincoln was exposed to. Sally Field (The Amazing Spider-Man, Forrest Gump) is excellent as the belligerent Mary Todd Lincoln while David Strathairn (Bourne Ultimatum, Good Night, and Good Luck) is a worthy sparring partner as the exasperated Secretary of State William Seward.
Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black, No Country for Old Men) introduces some necessary animation to the procedural nature of the film as the witty and headstrong congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a fierce and vocal supporter of the abolition movement whose own story would be worthy of its own movie.
Despite its flaws, Lincoln does successfully depict a volatile time in American history when the power of federal government was being challenged. Described as an experiment in democracy, the actions of Lincoln were presented as a just yet dubious and opportunistic attempt to end slavery and repair a disunited States.
While chronicling the life of man who fought his own party, congress, the southern rebels, and his own citizens to remove a stain on human dignity, Lincoln focuses too much on the detail of the nation-changing amendment to the detriment of its spirit.
This is a story that should be told, but Lincoln unfortunately offers exposition over a cinematic experience. With more than a whiff of revisionism, this bland re-telling omits much and does little to question Lincoln’s fabled position, but instead is in unashamed awe of the great emancipator.
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