For the past forty years, director Steven Spielberg has given audiences some of the best film experiences on the big-screen with his variety of different genres to work on whether it be his high-octane blockbusters (Jaws, E.T, Indiana Jones) or his sentimental and emotional dramas (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan). This year, he has returned to the theme of racism which he previously focused on in The Colour Purple (1985) and Amistad (1997) as he brings out his historical biopic Lincoln which currently leads the way in the Oscar nominations with twelve nods. Given his high-profile reputation in Hollywood, Spielberg is able to form an incredible cast of actors led by the mesmerising Daniel Day-Lewis and deliver an important message about how times have changed greatly in America since the dark days of history when all men weren’t seen as equal….
SYNOPSIS: In the midst of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) looks to try and finally get the Thirteen Amendment of the Constitution granted in order to abolish slavery. However it leads to conflict amongst the rest of the government as his cabinet attempt to land key votes in order to ensure the amendment goes ahead. Amongst those contributing include his former opponent Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) who becomes more supportive about the end of slavery despite his initial opposition against it. But as the war rages on, Lincoln’s determination is strained by his personal life involving his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and his eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). However he refuses to back away from his audacious plan as he looks to make history.
As with most cinematic biopics, Lincoln continues the trend of focusing on the personal challenges of its central character which the film does very well to highlight. Abraham Lincoln is not seen as this grand statue that historians have associated him as but instead he is depicted as a real man who questions his actions which allows the large ensemble of other characters to advise him about his tactics. In other words, you could say the film is more about the Constitution than of the actual leader which is why Spielberg chose to look at the impact the new regime could have on potential voters. When the Lincoln family aren’t on-screen, the attention is switched to the many contributors that try to make a huge difference to the human race. However the theme of family, something which Spielberg has always highlighted in his previous films, is also touched upon as Tony Kushner’s majestic (and dialogue-heavy) script gives us a chance to see how it affects Lincoln’s personal relationships with Mary Todd and Robert. It is clear that these confrontations affect the President greatly but fortunately Kushner doesn’t go too sentimental with that sub-plot and makes the amendment the main priority as part of the engaging narrative. Production value is another key factor of Spielberg’s directing craft as his team rebuild a tumultuous period in American history whether it be the old-fashioned costumes or the sight of thousands of men lying dead on the battlefield. A clever piece of misc-en-scene comes from the interior scenes where dark rooms are used possibly as a symbol for the depression that Lincoln went through and some shades of light used to convey the possible hope he has of pushing the amendment. We should also not forget the important contribution of Spielberg’s loyal composer John Williams (Oscar-nominated for the 48th time here) as he provides a sombre and engaging score which may not rank amongst his best but shows that he is still a composer at the peak of his powers. Talking of immense talent, Spielberg’s overwhelming cast is something to marvel about as the flawless Daniel Day-Lewis delivers another exquisite performance in his titular role as the President. Given the few films he has done in a career spanning almost thirty years, Day-Lewis continues to immerse himself in his character as he inhabits a subtle performance which commands authority and at times, rare moments of anguish during his confrontational scenes with both his cabinet and his family. Sally Field gives fierce support as Lincoln’s deranged wife who makes an impact as a loyal woman who struggles to overcome the traumatic loss of her son Winnie and uses that in her personal battle with Abe but also stands toe-to-toe in a more light-hearted scene where she ridicules Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens at a dinner party. As the third Oscar-winning member of the large cast, Jones brings his usual authoritative style to his character but also combines warmth and charisma to a man who changes his opinion on equality through his own personal life which is revealed nicely in the film’s closing stages. Given the size of the support cast, there are too many well-known actors to talk about but the stand-outs range from David Strathairn’s loyal secretary of state William Seward to James Spader’s robust henchman Bilbo. As a fan of American television, it’s also refreshing to see actors from two of my favourite shows pop up including Walton Goggins (The Shield’s Shane Vendrell) and David Constabile (Breaking Bad’s Gale).
A couple of negatives that Spielberg loses focus on is Lincoln’s sub-plot with his son Robert and the disjointed ending. With the former, Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues his progress as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars but his performance as the President’s rebellious son is rather limited and feels more like a filler role which only attracts interest in his confrontational scenes with his father. The final five minutes also threatens to derail the film which could have easily ended with the President walking down his hallway. But instead, Spielberg opts to carry on and show Lincoln’s assassination but not the way we expected to which leaves an unsettling feeling that almost takes away the inspirational mood we had experienced a few scenes earlier.
VERDICT: Despite its manipulative ending, Spielberg’s fascinating and masterful drama documents a crucial time in American history with Daniel Day-Lewis once again absorbing himself in his dominant role as Lincoln while surrounded by a who’s who of versatile cast members.