Thursday, 14 February 2013

Lincoln - A Review (Slight Spoilers)

It's awards season. The BAFTAs have been and gone and the Oscars are just around the corner. As always, there is an abundance of speculation about which film is going to walk away with the coveted Best Picture Oscar, and this year's hotly-tipped favourite is Steven Spielberg's latest historical epic, Lincoln. The bulk of the film chronicles one month of the 16th President's life, January 1865, one of the most important months in the history of the United States, and in so doing shows how the Constitution's 13th Amendment came to be passed. 

Steven Spielberg's highly acclaimed Lincoln.

Expectations for this film were high; with Spielberg at the helm, an all-star cast, and the focus being one of the United States' most beloved presidents, they were always going to be. But thankfully Lincoln doesn't disappoint, and there is one key reason for this: Daniel Day-Lewis.

The film may depict the brutality of the American Civil War and demonstrate how the nation was fundamentally and almost irreparably divided, yet at its core it is undoubtedly a film about Abraham Lincoln himself. It is a story about the type of man he was and the choices he made. Lincoln was always going to be made or broken by the actor charged with bringing him to life, and there could not have better choice for the role than Day-Lewis. Putting aside how astonishingly like Lincoln Day-Lewis looks when in costume, his ability to encapsulate the man's genius, patience, kindness, weariness and authority is simply staggering. So perfectly does he capture the very essence of Lincoln that when watching the film it is necessary to consistently remind yourself that you are not watching Lincoln himself but rather an actor playing him - though even then it can be quite hard to actually believe that. Day-Lewis really does carry the film on his shoulders, just like the man he portrays carried the fate of the Union on his, and just as Lincoln succeeded in ensuring the continuance of the Union, Day-Lewis succeeds in elevating an already-great film into something truly legendary.

Daniel Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln.

The downside of having such a strong leading-man in a film such as this is that it becomes easy to overlook the supporting cast, which in the case of Lincoln would be a terrible shame. Sally Field is marvellous as Mary Todd Lincoln (showing how it is never easy being the First Lady of the United States), Tommy Lee Jones is good but not spectacular as Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a fantastic job of portraying the frustrated but impassioned Robert Lincoln, and Hal Holbrook in particular shines in his portrayal of Francis Preston Blair. Collectively, the cast succeeds in bringing the world of Abraham Lincoln to life, and are undoubtedly an important part of the film's success.

Putting to one side for a moment the performances of the actors, the film itself is slightly flawed but nevertheless great. My main criticisms are that it is probably 20-30 minutes too long, and that John Williams's score, whilst recognisable as a Williams soundtrack, isn't his greatest achievement. But these minor gripes are easily outweighed by the overwhelming plethora of positive things about the film. Two scenes in particular were highlights for me. The first, the beginning of the scene in which the House votes on the amendment, which sees a number of black men and women enter the Chamber to watch the votes being cast about an issue that will decide their fate. It's hard to pin down exactly why I found it so moving, but I did, and in a lot of ways it reminded me of that scene at the end of the trial in To Kill A Mockingbird, in which all the black men and women stand up as Atticus leaves the courtroom. The second scene - also my favourite scene - happens to also be the second scene of the film, in which Lincoln talks to four soldiers of the Union army; two black, two white. Obviously having the four soldiers stand side by side is a touching visual representation of exactly what it was that Lincoln was fighting for, but what really got me was how the soldiers had committed the Gettysburg Address to memory. That, for me, highlights just how important that speech, and the man who spoke it, is in the narrative of world history. It shows that just as it resonated with those men two years after it was spoken, it resonates with us, citizens of the modern world, one and a half centuries after it was spoken. It's an understated scene in the film, but it's hugely affecting.

Ultimately, whilst I wholeheartedly want Lincoln to win the Best Picture Oscar at the end of the month, it would not quite be a crime against humanity if it did not win. What would be such a crime, however, is if Daniel Day-Lewis did not win the Best Actor award. Towards the end of the film, upon the pronunciation of Lincoln's death, Edwin M. Stanton utters the famous phrase "Now he belongs to the ages." Quite fittingly, Day-Lewis's performance of the great man also belongs to the ages.

Abraham Lincoln: a man of the ages.