There’s often a nostalgic hew cast over historical politics that implies that reason, courtesy, and progressiveness were all givens. However, Steven Spielberg’s illuminating historical drama Lincoln sinks us into the muddy quagmire of Washington where Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) must contend with the savagery of the Civil War and a multitude of human variables to implement the 13th Amendment to the U.S constitution that abolished slavery.
Day Lewis has ascended to the Marlon Brando level with yet another richly detailed and effortlessly transcendent performance. It’s not the vocally booming Lincoln that The Simpsons and South Park have groomed us to expect, it’s a contemplative and hypnotic presence that draws you in by speaking directly to your humanity. Unlike the large personalities of Bill ‘The Butcher (Gangs of New York) or Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood), Lincoln’s a far more restrained and complimentary presence. He’s retreating into the man and allowing for the full character to be defined in his interactions with the outstanding support cast. Just as great sportsmen draw better performances out of their teammates Day Lewis’ presence inspires the ‘A’ game from everyone he interacts with. Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, a political radical and humanist whose palpable frustration and ill-tempered ways make him magnetic and unpredictable. David Strathairn’s Secretary of State, William Seward plays wrangler for the wonderfully vivid W.N Bilbo played by James Spader who brings joy to political bribery. Sally Field’s rhythm between determination and fragility as Mary Todd Lincoln is one of the best performances that this reviewer’s seen her deliver. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Robert Lincoln, desperate to enlist and fight for the country in spite of his father’s motivations opens up more avenues to explore in Lincoln (Lewis).
Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,Spielberg’s Lincoln isn’t playing for historical bias or American ‘triumphalist’ propaganda There’s a detached perspective that acknowledges the popular perspectives of the President but without shying away from illuminating the double dealings and manipulation that was required to procure such significant change.
There’s a pedantic level of detail providing texture to the period. With cinematography from now permanent Spielberg DP (director of photography), Janus Kaminski there’s warmth and grime in the naturally lit and beautifully designed Washington. There’s also characteristic Kaminski/Spielberg shot collaborations that infer so much for the viewer without dialogue.
Lincoln is a performance masterclass. Spielberg humanises the icon and admires Lincoln the man – in the face of the challenges that defined him. It’s a special effort in the capable hands of a legend.
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