Air of authority

LINCOLN (M) ****

General release


Yes, it's long and talky. And sure, it's obvious Oscar bait. But if you're in the mood, and patient, and curious about a pivotal period in US history and the political process in general, Lincoln offers many rewards.

Directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by Tony Kushner, the film wisely does not attempt to cover the entire life of the 16th US president, Abraham Lincoln (superbly played by Daniel Day-Lewis), or even the whole of the Civil War. Instead, it focuses on the early months of 1865, when the recently re-elected president is trying to end the bloody conflict and also ensure passage through Congress of the 13th amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery.

Day-Lewis's Lincoln is folksy but shrewd, a man who uses jokes and anecdotes to disarm tensions and make points, a noble orator who enunciates high ideals but a politician who is pragmatic and determined to get what he wants, even if he has to wheel and deal - or get others to do so on his behalf. The machinations by which ''Yes'' votes are secured - offering jobs to congressmen, for example - sometimes appear dubious, but arguably this was one case where the end really did justify the means.


We also get a look at his family life, such as his sometimes stormy relationship with his wife Mary (Sally Field), still mourning the death of a child, and the conflict with his older son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wants to sign up to fight. This side of things isn't quite as well-developed as the politics but it provides another view of Lincoln as a man dealing with difficult personal issues as well as public ones.

Despite a couple of clunky edits, the film's technical qualities are impressive: the period settings and costumes feel authentic and Janusz Kaminski's dark-hued cinematography helps bring us into the 19th-century world. John Williams' score is relatively restrained, for once, but effective.

The film has a large cast but the use of many familiar faces - such as Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader and David Strathairn - helps to provide clarity in the storytelling even though the historical figures may not be familiar. Tommy Lee Jones is a standout as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican who seems even more zealous about ending slavery than Lincoln, and who is possessed of a sharp tongue he uses mercilessly against his opponents.

While that, and the grubby nature of politics, may not have changed much, other aspects are less familiar, such as the relative accessibility of the president (how times have changed). This absorbing film made me want to learn more about this period in history and about Lincoln himself.