Director Steven Spielberg returns a little over a year since his work was last on our screens with Lincoln, a biopic of one of America’s best loved leaders. On paper, it’s box-ticking Oscar winning material: an established, celebrated actor in the lead role, a director who (at least in the past, anyway) knows what he’s doing behind the camera and a topic that is dear to the hearts of all patriotic Americans. In reality, however, Lincoln disappoints on almost every previously mentioned level.
Focusing specifically on the last few months of the Civil War in 1865, Lincoln chronicles the struggles of President Abraham Lincoln in his attempt to abolish slavery and pass the 13th Amendment. His main problem is the lack of support he has from fellow Congressmen, and as much as his Cabinet tries, very few others are willing to vote for the change. With the death toll from the war rising at an alarming rate, an offer for peace is received. However, ending the war would mean that slavery would continue. And so the ultimate dilemma for Lincoln is proposed: either end slavery, or end the war.
Make no mistake, this is in no way a biopic of Abraham Lincoln’s life; the narrative is very much anchored in the one plot point of the 13th Amendment, which is the film title is rather baffling. Sure, the President is featured, but he and his life are not what the film is about: maybe being called Thirteen or The Amendment would have been more apt and to the point. Even his infamous death isn’t given much thought, with the revelation happening in a completely different theatre with no Lincoln in sight.
From the moment the first still image of Daniel Day Lewis as Abe appeared on the internet, he was a dead cert for an Academy Award nomination. The resemblance was undeniably uncanny, and from his previous work there was no question as to whether his performance would live up to the promise that the image brought. Unsurprisingly, DDL doesn’t disappoint. I can only assume that Lincoln sounded like Day Lewis portrayed him to have done, and if not, he should have. There’s a number of scenes where the President breaks out into a lengthy anecdote and everyone in the room stops what they’re doing to listen. These particular scenes are the stand-out ones, as it’s the only real time there’s a connection between the audience and the events: the slow pull-in used by Spielberg is superbly effective in drawing the viewer in, making them hang onto every word. These scenes are too few and far between though, and the rest of the film plays out like an elaborate play with most of the events taking place indoors with minimal exterior location shots employed.
The dialogue is absolutely unforgiving on the jargon. If you’re not up to scratch with American Politics, there’s a very high chance that you’ll just be frequently lost in the lingo. It’s not a major issue, and the story is relatively easy to follow, but Screenwriter Tony Kushner makes the talking feel like it’s more suited to a theatrical performance than cinematic. A few of the performers come across this way too, with Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife a specific culprit. The other big names attached play nothing but roles they’ve done before, but this time with wigs. Joseph Gordon Levitt, whilst hot property right now, seems out of place as Lincoln’s returning son, and that moustache isn’t fooling anybody. Credit must go to Tommy Lee Jones who is perfect as Thaddeus Stevens, a passionate Republican who favours equality for all men. His speeches come dangerously close to matching the power brought by Day Lewis’ Lincoln, and undoubtedly it’s these two distinguished performers who make the film bearable. If I were to go into detail about every actor who has dialogue, there’d be another 1000 words to this review; there’s over 150 speaking parts, which is a ridiculous amount. It comes as no surprise then that because of this it’s almost impossible to emotionally connect with any of the characters. Even the titular Lincoln is hard to relate to, apart from when he’s telling the stories.
Much like 2011’s War Horse, Lincoln promised solid Oscar material. And again, much like War Horse, Lincoln delivers so little. It’s not that it’s a bad film, it’s just visibly attempting to be something it’s not: a stone cold classic for the ages. Daniel Day Lewis makes this more memorable than it should be, but the overly descriptive dialogue and the meticulous attention to the Amendment logistics may put off and confuse many (myself included). It’s not all bad though – it’s certainly the best film about Lincoln out of the two released in the last year: and thankfully, with no Vampires.