The real deal

Steven Spielberg’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln is long, brave and exciting, writes Donald Clarke

FILM Weirdbeards in black: President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis, far right) and his war cabinet plot military strategy

Steven Spielberg’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln is long, brave and exciting, writes Donald Clarke

How hard would it be for the cine-literate viewer, approaching, with limited foreknowledge,

this gripping study of Abraham Lincoln’s greatest political battle, to recognise it as the work of Steven Spielberg? Not too difficult, I suspect.

Clues abound. Janusz Kamiñski’s camerawork dares to shroud the action in pre-electric murk, but the images always exhibit the calculated beauty of mainstream historical cinema. John Williams’s pounding sub-Aaron Copland chords – arguably the weakest aspect of the project – dictate the emotional temperature in characteristically unambiguous fashion. For all the impressive oddities of Daniel Day- Lewis’s excellent lead performance, the picture never quite escapes hagiography.

Those qualifications noted, Spielberg has unquestionably taken some brave decisions. Though the trailers may suggest otherwise, Lincoln largely eschews battlefield heroics for an intense, forensic study of American democracy at its most slippery.

Derived from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Tony Kushner’s script deals with the complex negotiations surrounding the passing of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. Defying the strongest advice of his most trusted lieutenants, the 16th president moved every mountain in his efforts to enshrine the abolition of slavery before peace was formally declared in the Civil War.

The film-makers do a good job of convincing us that US politics was no less filthy in the 19th century than it is now. A trio of fixers, headed by a superbly unscrupulous James Spader, is dispatched to cajole, bully and blackmail

wavering representatives into voting “aye”. Thaddeus Stevens

(a superbly grumpy Tommy Lee Jones), the most fervent abolitionist on the Republican benches, is persuaded to engage in a degree of vague, but significant, sophistry. Lincoln himself falls back on folksy anecdotes to charm both the humble and the mighty.

Against the odds, Spielberg makes something genuinely exciting of the backstage wheedling. How odd it is to see this populist master construct a trademark emotional surge – cheering actors, deified lighting, those Williams crescendos – around a point of parliamentary procedure rather than the death of a shark, the defeat of an alien nation or the massed rescuing of an oppressed people (though the legislation has, of course, that aim).

Liam Neeson was long connected with the enterprise. The Ballymena man looks more like Lincoln than Day-Lewis does, but, with inevitable commitment, the latter banishes all previous embodiments to obscurity and makes the role entirely his own.

A perusal of the cast list offers odd lessons about the hierarchy of performance. Spielberg has trundled down to the Character Actor Tavern and persuaded a liner-load of American greats to take on the supporting roles.

John Hawkes, Tim Blake

Nelson, Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, many others: every dark corner hides a famous US face. Yet, when casting contemporaneous and future presidents, the director sides with Anglo-Irish performers. Jared Harris plays Ulysses S Grant. And Day-Lewis essays the big man.

Would an American have dared such an eccentric performance? We can never know. But Day-Lewis is to be commended for jettisoning the booming vowels and adopting a high-pitched timbre that glides along the same vocal catch that characterises the speech of Bill Clinton. His determination is shrouded in humility and homespun pragmatism. There’s more realpolitik than soaring idealism on display.

So involving are the political intricacies that the film almost justifies its mighty length. The less impressive scenes involving family do, however, feel somewhat bolted on. Sally Field fails to engage with Mary Todd Lincoln’s rumoured bi-polarity and, instead, makes a batty encumbrance of the troubled first lady. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s solid turn as the president’s eldest son can’t quite escape narrative superfluity.

Lincoln remains, however, a courageously nuanced treatment of a complex story. Watch and learn.