by Padraic Coffey
Saving Private Ryan, the second film for which Steven Spielberg won a Best Director Academy Award, memorably begins with over twenty minutes of intense combat footage, as Allied troops storm the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, 1944, only to be cut to ribbons by heavy German artillery. It was quite unlike anything Spielberg had depicted up until then in his career, with perhaps the exception of the liquidisation of the Kraków ghetto in Schindler’s List. Lincoln deals with a conflict closer to home for Americans than WWII, the Civil War wrought almost a century beforehand between Northern and Southern states over the inflammatory issue of slavery, at a time when Abraham Lincoln was President. After some brief introductory captions, we see (mainly black) soldiers clashing on a muddy battlefield. It may seem we are in for an act comparable with that of Saving Private Ryan, but soon cut to the figure of Lincoln, revealed from behind in a slow tracking shot reminiscent of that at the beginning of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
If Spielberg’s intentions with the opening scene of Lincoln were to give its eponymous character a larger-than-life persona, it is odd how soon this cinematic approach is abandoned. Despite the title, and a predictably faultless performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, this is no biopic of the 16th President of the United States. It focuses almost entirely on one part of Lincoln’s second term; his attempt to have the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution passed, while bringing to an end the trench-warfare raging in the background. And in that regard, the character of rabid abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones) is as vital to the success of Spielberg’s film as Lincoln himself. Much has been made of Day-Lewis’ performance, superlative though it is, but Jones is equally impressive as a man forced to compromise through gritted teeth in seeing slavery abolished, so repulsed is he by its inherent inhumanity.
Spielberg’s film is uncommonly intelligent Hollywood fare, adapted from Doris Kearns Godwin’s epic historical text Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (though selecting a small number of chapters as its primary focus). It does not rush the complexity of the issues with which it deals over its two-and-a-half-hour running length. The lively debates held in the House of Representatives, led by anti-abolitionist Democrat Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and Jones’ Stevens are the highlights of the film, though, ironically, none feature Lincoln himself. Indeed, so mesmerising is Jones in his screen-time we may forgot that we are watching a film supposedly centred on one man. The result is that, while the political aspects of the film – the bribing of Congressmen, the prejudices of some Republicans – are riveting, the personal aspects fall somewhat flat, particularly the efforts of Lincoln’s son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to defy his parents wishes and join the Union Army.
Spielberg, too, succumbs to sentimentality in many scenes. Blame must be levelled at Spielberg’s composer of choice, John Williams, whose saccharine noodling intrudes on several occasions. Spielberg’s failure to rein Williams in ensures that Lincoln falls short of the likes of Schindler’s List. The director also cannot resist explaining his characters’ motivations which, in the case of Stevens, considerably undermines the effectiveness of Tony Kushner’s screenplay elsewhere. Viewers with even a basic knowledge of American history will be aware of Lincoln’s fate, and it remains to be seen if the unconventional handling of this works in the film’s favour. Despite these flaws, Lincoln is an important work from America’s foremost populist filmmaker. It handles its subject matter in a mostly cerebral fashion, with superlative performances from a formidably-assembled cast.