Four Years into the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), the 16th King of the United States of America, has his eyes set on not just ending the conflict, but abolishing slavery – over which the war is being predominantly fought – in the process. In order to do this he must pass the 13th amendment to the United States House of Parliament, which would outlaw involuntary servitude, but there’s two problems. One, he’s twenty votes short, and two, he needs to pass it before the war ends, or else it may never happen. And on top of this he’s got some familial woes too – a nutty wife and bull-headed son who wants to go off and fight for his beliefs.
This probably won’t come as a shock to regular readers, but I’m not an American. I’m English, and we got shot of those pesky Yanks long before I was born, and a good thing too if you ask me. As such, I’m not as well versed in the ins and outs of American politics as most people who will have seen this film. I’m a big fan of The West Wing, but I rarely understand everything that’s happening in that, but it is still highly entertaining in terms of dialogue and performances, and all I know about Lincoln is he was president, emancipated the slaves (which sounds painful), was assassinated during a play (which most definitely was painful), and at one point he travelled through time in a phone booth, with Genghis Khan, Sigmund Freud, Billy the Kid, Socrates, Joan of Arc and Beethoven.
Having now watched all two and a half hours of this film, I’m now a little more knowledgeable about Lincoln and his life, but only slightly more so. This is for two reasons, one of which is that this film isn’t really about Lincoln, so much as it is the progression of the 13th Amendment, and in fact some of the better scenes take place without the president anywhere near the camera, with the republicans and democrats verbally duking it out amongst themselves. The second reason is that watching Lincoln felt an awful lot like watching Shakespeare, especially the first time around. A great deal of the dialogue flew past me with no sign of comprehension, but fortunately I was able to catch the drift of what was going on thanks to the tremendous performances on display, from a cast almost beyond comparison.
This is one of those films, like Argo or Seven Psychopaths, where every five to ten minutes another character actor appears onscreen, occasionally three at once. For me, this was the most enjoyable aspect of the film, and in fact pretty much any film where this is the case, because I do love me some character actors. The only problem with there being so many great actors in the film, however, was that there wasn’t nearly enough screen time for many of them, and in fact a little too much of some. Whilst the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook and Lee Pace all receive adequate time on screen, the likes of Walton Goggins, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Oyelowo, Jared Harris and Jackie Earle Haley are almost overlooked in favour of more time being given to Lincoln’s family; his wife (Sally Field) and sons (Joseph Gordon Levitt & Gulliver McGrath). I normally don’t mind Field, and actively seek out Gordon Levitt’s work, but here they just come off as grating and detracting from the predominant plotline, that of the amendment. I’ll give her credit though, Field certainly earned her Best Actress Oscar nomination; it really must be very difficult to come off as quite so annoying, and with this being a Steven Spielberg film, infuriating children were only to be expected (I’m watching Jurassic Park as I write this). Also, there were still quite a few less well known actors amongst the cast, but again due to their sheer numbers, and the similarities between many of the characters, if I wasn’t overly familiar with the actors’ face from their other works, I’m afraid their characters all kind of merged together. The three main victims of a trimmed performance were those brought in for the comic relief, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and James Spader. They respectively play Richard Schell, Robert Latham and W. N. Bilbo, the three men brought in by Strathairn’s Secretary of State William Seward to help drum up votes from amongst the politicians for the amendment. Their few scenes are easily the most entertaining, and I could have done with far more of them, but the decision to give an important running scene to Spader’s portly, flushed, lumbering booze hound over the more sprightly Hawkes didn’t make a lot of sense plot-wise, but was much funnier than it otherwise could have been. And credit must be given to whoever decided Spader deserved the customary singular 12A ‘F’ word, because it’s the best use of that I’ve seen since X-Men: First Class.
Of course, the actor who really deserves every possible accolade going is the only one who looks more like the character he is playing than the man actually playing him, Daniel Day-Lewis as the eponymous emancipator. Day-Lewis is notorious for being consumed by his roles, and of those that I’ve seen (There Will Be Blood, Gangs of New York, A Room With A View) this is definitely his most impressive, so much so that I’m not entirely sure why anyone else has actually been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar this year. His Lincoln is a masterful orator, equipped with a speech or fable for any and every eventuality and the ability to put anyone at ease with his jovial yet considered manner. There are a few long shots, several minutes in length apiece, whose focus is solely on Day-Lewis’ face as he gives another speech to his men seated at the table, and they prove that his performance is seamless and beyond comparison. Tommy Lee Jones is also great as the rambunctious Thadeus Stevens, so much so that I wondered whether his story would have been a more interesting one than Lincoln’s, even with that ridiculous wig. He also got to call someone a fatuous nincompoop, which can only be a good thing in my book.
Another Oscar nomination this film thoroughly deserved is in cinematography. Every frame is a work of art, meaning that even the most tedious or confusing bouts of dialogue take place during scenes that are still very pretty to look at. In fact, the more boring scenes – those which occur in the darkest, dingiest corners of candle-lit offices – are if anything the most beautifully lit and well staged. It is clear that Spielberg and his regular director of photography since Schindler’s List, Janusz Kaminski, carefully considered exactly where the camera should be positioned to expertly show exactly what needed to be seen.
Even though it begins on an impressively realised battlefield, amongst Spielberg’s works this is far more akin to Schindler’s List than Saving Private Ryan. It may well just be two and a half hours of well spoken men speaking well, but it could have been far more boring than it was. The ending, however, was to the wrong film. As I mentioned, this is more the story of the 13th Amendment than the life of Abraham Lincoln, but the last five or ten minutes of the film have got this the wrong way around, and should at most have been covered in a paragraph of text at the end of the film, if at all.
Choose film 7/10