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In preparation for the release of Lincoln, dear constant reader, you’ll know doubt be aware that Switch has been running a special series of articles, collectively and lovingly referred to refer to as the Steven Spielberg Retrospective. Filled with insights and keen analysis on both blockbusters (Saving Private Ryan) and lesser-known classics (Amistad), you’ve devoured them with greedy interest, reacquainting yourself with these films either as old, comforting friends… or better yet, discovered them for the first scintillating time. Suffice it to say, the major tropes and themes of Spielberg’s historical cinema are now well known to you, and it’s fortunate they are; Lincoln is a perfect distillation of Spielberg’s qualities as a filmmaker, and a magnificent entry into his historical pantheon.
The year is 1865, and one year into his second term, President Lincoln finds himself fighting battles on multiple fronts. The Civil War drags on, commanding astronomical casualties; his Emancipation Proclamation is in danger of being overturned; his eldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is desperate to prove himself a patriot on the field of battle; and his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), is an emotional wreck, mourning the death of their third son even as she aggressively motivates her conflicted husband. Concurrent and above these concerns is his plan for the Thirteenth Amendment – the abolishment of slavery once and for all – and the impending ethical and moral means he must go to see equality delivered at last…
Lincoln is a film with many facets, each as compelling as the last. It’s a court-room drama, filled with impassioned pontificating delivered by sensational actors; it’s a domestic melodrama, examining the pressures of marriage beneath social responsibilities; it’s a thrilling race against time, as Lincoln and his compatriots rush to secure Amendment support against an impending Union surrender. (This latter thread is also wryly hilarious, as his three co-conspirators – led by James Spader – employ increasingly desperate tactics to win over stubborn Democrats.)
At its heart, though, is Spielberg’s favourite trope: the story of fathers and sons. Lincoln is a study of paternity, both on a grand and intimate scale. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis, never better) is as much a father to a nation as he is to his two surviving sons. Both Lincoln and Robert (Gordon-Levitt) see patriotism as two sides of the same ideal – sacrifice, duty, honour, respect – even if the execution of the ideal forces them to compromise what they believe to be right. And the moral compass Lincoln takes pains to impress upon his younger son, Tad, is the same morality system he impeaches of his congressmen. The ability to “do right” is a duty Lincoln believes all men are responsible for, and far from an impossible ideal… although it may come at a cost.
Spielberg directs with a painterly eye, composing dramatic and iconic images steeped in darkness and shafts of diffused light. There’s a lack of vibrancy and colour to Lincoln’s world, making the dilemma he faces seem truly black and white. The wonderfully erudite script by Angels In America and Munich scribe, Tony Kushner, is filled with sensational exchanges, and the cast – faultless to a man – devour every line. Kushner crafts a masterful, gripping narrative that succeeds in making historical facts seem like tentative possibilities, and the forgone conclusion fresh and genuinely thrilling.
No amount of superlatives are left to be said about Daniel Day-Lewis, both here and in his career in general; his Lincoln is a grand creation, his most accessible and stately performance to date. It would be easy to caricature the legendary figure of Lincoln, but Day-Lewis shows admirable restraint, crafting a complex man brimming with humour and compassion, fierce in anger and composed in the face of adversity. His scenes with Sally Field ground her overtly emotional Mary Todd, and in context with his stoic Lincoln, her flighty characterisation becomes increasingly apt. A plethora of famous faces round out the large ensemble, with Tommy Lee Jones utterly flawless as the cantankerous Thaddeus Stevens; Lee Pace is deliciously vile as an outspoken Democratic Congressman; and Jarred Harris scene-steals in two key sequences as Ulysses S. Grant.
In perhaps typical Spielberg style, Lincoln is an outstanding story of triumph, adorned with wit and anchored in humanity. It’s both a recreation of American history, reenacted with the finest artistic resources available to cinema, and a timely critique of America today. Lincoln’s struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment is a landmark on the long road to equality and civil rights, and a journey that Spielberg and Kushner imply (albeit with subtly and consummate care) that’s still far from over. But above all, it is consummate entertainment: an important, exceptional entry into the annals of American cinema, and a jewel in the ever-expanding filmography of the world’s greatest living filmmaker.