Monday 31 August 2020

From the archive: "Lincoln"

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has the advantage over Zero Dark Thirty in that it is, plainly, Old History: these facts are 99.9% set in stone, and we’re meant to feel their weight. After the flimsy kidlit of War Horse, the new film is a mightily worthy addition to this director’s canon, shrewdly rejecting the standard biopic’s rushed overview in favour of honing in on the pivotal moment of January 1865, when Honest Abe pushed through the amendment that would abolish slavery, and end the Civil War for good.

In drawing from this one month’s activity all those virtues the man in office is claimed to have stood for, Lincoln treads not lightly – both its subject and its aim, in this awards season, is vote-gathering – yet, even at its most thunderous, the film’s underlying love of democracy, fair play and common sense proves touching in a way a Spielberg film hasn’t properly been for some while.

“I’m used to going at a deliberate pace,” this Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) announces at an early juncture. The film goes no quicker, decked out as it has been with studious brows, stovepipe hats and mutton-chop sideburns, and set out in a series of very talky scenes extrapolated from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s tome Team of Rivals by the playwright Tony Kushner. Any other director would be under pressure from the studio to lighten these scenes up, but as Spielberg’s DreamWorks is the studio, free rein has been given to Kushner’s oratorical flourishes: put bluntly, Lincoln is one damn speech after another.

In their defence, these are persuasive, epoch-changing speeches, and Kushner is alert to the potential dangers of all this talk, in a way the no less logorrheic Django Unchained wasn’t: “No! You’re going to tell another story!,” yelps Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), haring out of the telegraph office as the lawyerly Abe opens his mouth in a manner that becomes increasingly familiar.

Such fervent debate shouldn’t be an issue for audiences schooled in TV’s Deadwood and The West Wing – shows where speech was an integral part of the pleasure – and it’s revealing indeed on the intricacies of Civil War-era party politics. Here’s what is effectively an inverse America: in 1865, it was the Democrats worrying that passing any amendment would grant the incumbent dictatorial power going into his second term. At a time of constitutional deadlock in the States, Spielberg’s film pointedly dramatises the giant steps forward a nation can take when its factions listen to one another and allow themselves to be surprised, rather than clinging to the old certainties, out of fear of what might lie ahead.

Kushner’s words, meanwhile, come as a boon to the actors, who shape them into very careful character studies. Freed by the limited timeframe from the usual biopic concerns of having to unite younger and older selves, they delve into these figures’ personalities and idiosyncrasies; you can practically see the research oozing through their pores.

John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader offer appreciable light relief as the lobbyists Lincoln sent into the field to win votes, but the real heavy lifting gets done at the top of the cast list. Tommy Lee Jones – an actor surely born to dismiss one of his co-stars as “a pompous nincompoop” – is on cherishably ornery form as Thaddeus Stevens, the wily, bewigged statesman who eased the amendment’s passage through the House of Representatives; his reward is what, in Kushner’s hands, comprises a lovely punchline, uniting the political with the political.

Yet the clinching vote, as so often, may go to Day-Lewis: oft shot in profile, lost in deep thought, he has the presidential bearing and timbre down pat, weighing each step, offering a word – and often a whole paragraph – for everyone, until that critical moment when talk must give way to action. Watching yet another Day-Lewis masterclass, you realise there was no need for Hollywood to have turned Abe Lincoln into a vampire hunter, as the real thing was stirring enough: here’s a leader with the capacity to put a stake through any lingering evil with just one look, considered phrase or sly chuckle. Modern politicos, students of history and acting alike: watch and learn.

(MovieMail, January 2013)

Lincoln screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1am.

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