The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Reviewed by Greg Frame.

Director Steven Spielberg
Length 150 mins
Certificate 12A / PG-13
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

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Lincoln examines the role of the president (Daniel Day-Lewis) in the final stages of the American Civil War. It chronicles his tireless efforts to pass the thirteenth amendment to outlaw slavery, despite the strong opposition from Democrats in Congress and from conservative elements in his own party.

It’s an impressively mounted and very well executed piece of prestige filmmaking, capturing a sense of historical grandeur with aplomb. Lincoln is beautifully designed in its period detailing and its cinematography. Performances are superb across the board: Sally Field’s performance as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, has a mournful, elegiac quality; James Spader (replete with protruding belly and unruly moustache) is delicious as the rambunctious W.N. Bilbo; the immovable nature of abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens is rendered all the more convincing by Tommy Lee Jones’ granite-like face. Binding these wonderful supporting players together is Day-Lewis’ monumental performance. The timbre of his voice captures the requisite world-weariness of a man who had presided over the forces of the Union army through the brutality of the Civil War. Despite the lack of moving images or audio of Lincoln in existence, Day-Lewis’ performance strikes an authentic note. He portrays the complexity and enormity of the amendment’s passage with majesty and grace: charismatic statesman, beleaguered leader, husband and father simultaneously caring and cantankerous.

The problems the film has are more to do with its focus. The screenplay, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, has more in common with a history lesson than a powerful drama. It is no doubt important that Spielberg pay rigorous attention to the historical record (the issue of slavery and racism is still a touchy one even in the 21st century United States), but Lincoln is more concerned with the process of passing the amendment rather than the significance of the amendment itself (I have heard it accurately described as “The West Wing with spittoons”). The film is clearly intended as a celebration of what the democratic process can achieve, but it seems something of a missed opportunity. We get very little sense of what exactly it is Lincoln is fighting against here. Indeed, for all its faults, Django Unchained (2012) is rather more successful in representing the brutality of slavery. On occasion, Lincoln feels like a textbook brought to life. Further, in what seems to have recently become Spielberg’s Achilles Heel, Lincoln doesn’t know when to end. What has been throughout an expertly edited piece, lending the scenes in the House of Representatives an urgency and dynamism, slightly stumbles towards its conclusion.

Having said that, Lincoln remains a remarkable achievement. It has the traditional Spielberg sentimentality, but it is rather more subtly handled than in his previous historical films. While Abraham Lincoln the man had almost disappeared behind his memorial in Washington D.C., Lincoln breathes life back into this marble totem, rendering tangible and immediate what was once remote: great things are achieved not by the superhuman, but by ordinary women and men of noble intention, with courage and commitment.

At a time when the American democratic process is mired in partisan gridlock, it is comforting to remember a time when the system functioned as it was supposed to. While biopics and historical films such as this are often troubling because their nostalgia tends to shut down any further discussion of the ways in which racial intolerance, inequality and prejudice persist, on the odd occasion it is satisfying to be allowed to pause for a moment and recognise that, as far as the human race still have to go, we have indeed come an awful long way.

This review was published on February 14, 2013.

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