An opening scene of dewy-eyed soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address threatens the spectre of director Steven Spielberg overdoing the treacle in his biopic of Abe Lincoln. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time Spielberg had made a shallow liberal- guilt fantasy about the awfulness of slavery...
Fortunately, Lincoln is a different beast from Amistad.
If anything, his pared-down tale of Lincoln’s legal battle to secure the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is an intriguing mirror image to Schindler’s List as a study in the complexities of doing the right thing.
Unlike Liam Neeson’s reluctant Nazi, Abe starts from the moral high ground and burrows down into compromise: enforcing dictatorial wartime powers, hiring shady operatives to bribe opponents, and confounding dissent with rambling tall tales.
There’s a political intelligence here that belies Spielberg’s leanings towards simplification. Confined mostly to crowded rooms by a script low on action and high on verbal horse-trading, Spielberg anchors events in his presidential hero, the camera forever closing in to listen to what he says.
It’s worth hearing, partly because of the stately elegance and tangy period insults of Tony Kushner’s screenplay, but mostly to luxuriate in the extraordinary modulations of Daniel Day-Lewis’ voice.
The star creates personality through incremental details – the posture hunched but straightening in curiosity about the world; the pensive stroking of that whiskery beard; and that voice, soft and inclusive yet flecked with unavoidable firmness.
Compare this to the grit of There Will Be Blood and Day-Lewis’ unsurpassed, triple-Oscar reputation is absolute.
Seemingly nigh on half of Hollywood has shown up to bask in his greatness. Day-Lewis forces everyone to raise their game, notably a louche James Spader and a cantankerous, Oscar-nominated Tommy Lee Jones, but there are few scenes available to steal, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is particularly wasted in the thankless role of Lincoln’s son.
By now, director and star have achieved quasi-presidential status themselves, and this is the work of men who – like Lincoln – have the maturity not to strain too hard when a low-key approach better suits.
It’s a shame, then, that John Williams conjures a sentimental fanfare that is out of place among the political ironies.
Eventually, too, Spielberg succumbs to a flabby coda that belatedly harvests the corn sown at the beginning, but it scarcely dents the impact of his most thoughtful, authoritative film in years.
‘Living With Lincoln’ is the pick of the Blu-ray’s six featurettes (two on DVD), capturing the strongest sense of being on set.
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