Who else but Steven Spielberg could take on such a grand subject as the abolition of American slavery and the cessation of civil war?
The filmmaking great appears to have embraced the challenge with glee, following mixed fortunes with War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin and an extensive time producing television and film. His masterstroke is in casting Daniel Day-Lewis - possibly the finest actor alive today - to play the 16th president of the US during his tumultuous second term in office.
|Actors||Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, David Strathairn, John Hawkes, Jared Harris, Lee Pace|
As the Civil War continues to rage, America's president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield and as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves.
This grand (and very long) drama begins with a fantasy sequence: Lincoln seated, almost identical to the towering monument of him in Washington DC, listening to two black slaves. But before long, we are taken away to be steeped in Capitol Hill-type politics, legal-eagle jargon and the manoeuvring that goes with it as this upstanding family man boldly battles to abolish the slave trade, which he can do only before the hostilities of the American Civil War are declared at an end.
Much has been made of Day-Lewis's impeccable performance - he seems almost certain to win best actor again at this year's Oscars, and rightly so. The long-time Irish resident (and now citizen) studied the subject voraciously, thumbing through more than 100 tomes on the great man. His Lincoln is older and greying: a thin, almost frail voice evoking an almost unwavering air of wisdom, all too aware of the timeline he faces. Physically, Day-Lewis has matched the man's walk and posture, too. And, like his esteemed director, one can't imagine anyone else being even vaguely capable of pulling off this sort of performance, let alone on this scale.
Spielberg typically surrounds his leading man with A-grade support. Sally Field is breathtaking as Lincoln's no-nonsense wife, Mary, despite an obvious age difference (Field is 10 years older than Day-Lewis but her character here is 10 years his junior). Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, James Spader and Hal Holbrook all shine as chief ringleaders in the political house, where Lincoln's bills are challenged, discussed and finally voted on. Indie-film wunderkind Joseph Gordon-Levitt is also typically solid as Lincoln's son, whose sights are set on the battlefield and defeating the south, despite his father's wishes.
Some will baulk at the lengthy running time, but it would be difficult to cover such matters adequately in much less than three hours. Equally, the latter part of the film, dealing with Lincoln's assassination, feels somewhat rushed, as if the demise of the man was felt too raw to emphasise.
Spielberg is known for his grand, sweeping gestures, and the finale is no exception, with a soaring score that feels a tad too sweet and glorifying, given the weight of what has gone before. Subtlety has rarely been employed in his films. Given Lincoln's bravura performance as a two-term president, perhaps such emotions are inevitable.
This is easily Spielberg's best picture since Schindler's List. Like that multi-Oscar winner, Lincoln deals with a subject that's clearly close to his heart. At 66, he has sufficient years behind him to tackle such a grandiose topic. Now having a two-term black president in the White House can't hurt, either.
Once the hoo-ha around the lofty historical essay has died down, we'll be back in more familiar Spielberg territory, where he's director or producer or both. There are further Tintin films coming, a fourth belated stab at the Jurassic Park franchise and another Indiana Jones adventure, as well as robot-uprising yarn Robopocalypse.
None, though, are likely to carry the burden and sheer weight of this very fine picture.
Rated M, 153 minutes, opens Thursday
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook