Film Review: Lincoln
It’s odd that at this point in the cinematic season, a film would impress on such a mammoth scale. For British filmgoers, Lincoln is the last of the heavy hitters to see a UK release before the BAFTAs and the Oscars (alongside Zero Dark Thirty with which it shared a release date). Interesting then, that after the Argos and the Silver Linings Playbooks, a film with such straightforward appeal would then reveal itself to be, simply, the best film of the year.
On paper, it reads like Oscar bait anyway. Spielberg directing Day-Lewis as perhaps the grandest figure of American history; the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. That, in essence, is what people will flock in their hundreds of thousands to witness. On that front, it delivers as you would expect. Daniel Day-Lewis commands the film with a presence not unlike that of the man he is portraying. That massive focal point aside, however, it is the visionary filmmaking (in every sense of the word) and thorough supporting cast that push the film well past being an awards-vehicle and into the annals of all-time great pictures.
It is evident from the casting that this was always going to be a project that everyone wanted in on. The chance to work with Spielberg on a film that only Spielberg had the capability of putting together. Sally Field, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones were the luckiest of the bunch (Field and Jones specifically, earning supporting role nominations across the board), while there are an easily forgotten handful of additional performances that could just as easily have been considered as just about every actor in Lincoln is nothing short of absolutely spot on. James Spader, in particular, is especially memorable as Lincoln’s fat, drunk vote-procurer. All the while, John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson and Michael Stuhlbarg (among countless other familiar faces) bind together effortlessly to bring Tony Kushner’s incredible screenplay to life.
And what a screenplay it is.
Basing his work on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Kushner has beautifully reconstructed the language of the time to match Rick Carter’s impeccable production design. It is writing of almost unfathomable excellence, with its intellectuality matched only by its elegance. Kushner’s screenplay is truly to life through the performances of all involved; a perfect synergy of class and maturity.
Obvious elements aside, Spielberg and his rag-tag team of regular contributors have achieved something timeless with this particular production. They manage, on an inexplicably impressive scale, to transport the audience to Civil War-era America. 1865 has never looked or felt so authentic. Sets are finely detailed to match the era exactly, while costumes, hair and make-up appear so natural that you will barely feel like you are watching a film; more a high-budget fly-on-the-wall account of what actually happened within the walls of the White House and the House of Representatives. Truly, it is astonishing, and will be reflected upon for decades.
It does, predictably, all ping back to Daniel Day-Lewis. Over his accomplished career, he has established himself as one of the great dramatic actors in the history of cinema, but his performance here may even overshadow his affecting turn as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Daniel Plainview (for which he won his seconds Oscar). It’s certainly a tough call, but the reason Lincoln may prove to win out is the fact that within the context of such a well-written, well-produced and well-acted film, Day-Lewis still manages to completely dominate in every sense of the word. The way he conveys passion, sensitivity and withholding is the work of complete genius, and when Lincoln inevitably perishes, the audience’s grief is able to be as fresh as it was when his demise was first learned of all those years ago. Over two-and-a-half hours, it is a privilege to witness his greatness. And in his on-screen death, there is only sadness in the new born realisation that in time, he could have accomplished even more in the molding of his beloved nation were he not cruelly denied the chance to conclude his presidency on his own terms.
Lincoln is as dramatically moving and fantastically produced as any film Spielberg has lent his talents to. It will stand to sit at the top of the pile alongside Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan while everything else is left to look up and marvel.