REVIEW: Lincoln
REVIEW: Lincoln

In the opening moments of Steven Spielberg's long-gestating Abraham Lincoln biopic a pair of soldiers, fresh from fighting another horrific battle for the Union, approach the great man and tell him they were in Gettysburg for his historic address. Each then take turns to rattle off the storied speech honouring those who gave their lives to keep the young nation together, with final words delivered eloquently by a third trooper, a black man, as he marches off to the next skirmish.

You'd have thought Spielberg would have given these immortal lines to Daniel-Day Lewis, to allow his star to unleash the full force of his acting chops to bring vivid, full-throated life to the most famous oration in American history.

But Spielberg lets the air out of the speech which in lesser hands (or in the hands of the younger Spielberg) would have been puffed-up and overbearing, foreshadowing the earthy, artfully restrained approach that allows the man to emerge from behind the myth. And the man Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner uncover is not the yarn-spinning country lawyer of previous movies about America's 16th president, such as John Ford's 1939 classic Young Mr Lincoln (although there is a bit of the cracker-barrel philosopher in their POTUS).

What they give us is Lincoln the steely Washington insider, the wily, hard-nosed politician who used any means necessary - sweet-talking, cajoling, bullying and twisting the truth - to force through the 13th Amendment to the American constitution that would put and end to slavery, an achievement that secured his place in history.

In other words, Lincoln is narrow in focus (we get just glimpses of the Civil War and the assassination is a mere footnote) but vast in ambition and achievement, a masterful recalibration of the Abraham Lincoln story that shows the pernicious trade in human cargo was defeated, not just by speeches and a bloody war, but by political manoeuvring, brains and not blustering.

And though Lincoln is talk-heavy and largely set indoors - it plays more like an episode of The West Wing than the kind of sweeping saga one would expect of this master of the wide-screen epic - Spielberg's movie is gripping from start to finish, an intellectually challenging political thriller that will make you rethink your idea of leadership and heroism.

Realising the imminent end of the Civil War will not necessarily bring an end to slavery, Lincoln sets about ramming through the 13th Amendment.

It is a race against the clock to extract votes from wavering Democrats at the same time as leaning on radicals in his own party, lead by Thaddeus Stevens (a marvellously gruff Tommy Lee Jones), to compromise their high-minded beliefs in racial equality to get the legislation on the books. Lincoln also must keep the Civil War going at the same time as talking up peace with envoys sent up from the South, a marvellously comical narrative strand in which Lincoln keeps the Confederate leadership hanging about outside of Washington. Indeed, Lincoln is surprisingly funny for such a high-minded movie, with James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson playing a trio of buffoon-ish vote-buyers who use offers of cushy government jobs and other presidential privileges, to swing weak-willed Democrats to the Republican cause. It's comical sub-plot worthy of Shakespeare, an author beloved by Lincoln. And many of the best laughs come from Lincoln himself.

Despite Lincoln being American history's most famous melancholic, Spielberg and Kushner, working from Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 bestseller Team of Rivals, mine a deep vein of humour in Lincoln, who never seems to be without a story or a dirty joke to deal with a knotty political problem.

That warmth carries over to Lincoln's treatment of his family. While Lincoln was preoccupied with the fight to end slavery, a battle that left him ravaged and prematurely aged, Spielberg shows him as a husband and father whose grieving, mentally ill wife Mary (an affecting Sally Field) implores her husband to cease the war so they would not lose another son.

Of course, Spielberg's restrained but never dull approach, and Kushner's ingenious wrangling of a vast amount of material, would amount to naught without the magisterial, full-immersion performance from Day-Lewis, who is not only a close physical match for the gaunt, gangly 19th century giant, but captures his wit, his intellect and his humanity. Indeed, Day-Lewis' Lincoln feels close to us yet remote, a man whose belief in compromise for the greater good speaks to our own politically fractious age, yet who remains of his own time. This is how history should be presented - dramatically, yet with sentiment, appealing to the head as much as the heart.

What they give us is Lincoln the steely Washington insider, the wily, hard-nosed politician who used any means necessary.


The West Australian

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