Review: Lincoln


Lincoln - Credit: Archant

Steven Spielberg's long gestating Lincoln biopic is less a drama more a state occasion. It is dull and solemn, but well organised and done with enormous dignity.

While we get pensioners to stand on a boat for hours on end in the pouring rain, over there they honour their great leaders and the institutions of state with a parade of character actors, their cheeks encased in whiskers, who appear to say a few words of homage.

The calibre of performers is impeccable; it is almost impossible to keep track of them all and many disappear before you have time to put a name to a face or work out where you recognize them from.

Though bookended with depictions of Civil War carnage, Lincoln is a men-talking-in-rooms drama; an almost unvarying succession of grey men conversing in dark interiors lit from a single source. It looks like a later Clint Eastwood western with the action removed.

The script restricts itself to the last four months of the US President's life, to the ending of Civil War and the passing of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery.

At the start of his second term, and in the middle of the fourth winter of the Civil War, Lincoln decides to push for the abolition of slavery, despite everyone advising against it. To get it passed in the House of Representatives he needs to keep all the Republicans onside and get at least 20 Democrats to vote with him. He also has to head off efforts to accept a peace deal with the south.

It is a situation rife with dramatic possibilities and awkward contradictions. The great defender of democracy demonstrated tyrannical powers as a wartime leader; this great emancipation was achieved by subterfuge and low politicking. The film presents the American democratic institutions of the time as an undignified, craven hub of cowardice and hypocrisy. There is grit there, yet it seems a whitewash in clear sight.

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This is partially because of Daniel Day-Lewis's incarnation of Abe. His performances are now such a rarity that any appearance on screen carries a certain aura and when he plays a revered figure like Lincoln the combination makes him something of a deity. He brings things to a halt whenever he appears.

Day-Lewis' Lincoln is an avuncular figure, a man with an anecdote or quip for every occasion. He's brooding and troubled but also serene and wise. A man who always seems to know more than those around him. Give him a sonic screwdriver and he could be the next Doctor Who.


Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader

Length: 150 mins