When is a biopic not a biopic?
When it’s Steven Spielberg’s masterly, high-minded recreation of Abraham Lincoln’s long-shot battle to get the 13th amendment outlawing slavery through a hostile Congress.
Unlike earlier myth-making takes on America’s most beloved president, Spielberg and his prestige screenwriter Tony Kushner recreate Lincoln as a man juggling morality, chicanery, war-waging and family troubles rather than as a monument-in-waiting.
The outcome is a tense legislative drama, an immersion in history made in cramped, smoke-filled rooms, as Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) cobbles together an unruly coalition in a race that will change the face of America.
Tight concentration on the desperate dash in January 1865 to bribe Democrats with plum jobs and Republicans with peace talks, makes for a taut, suspenseful story.
It’s The West Wing in wing-collars, culminating in a nail-biting day of reckoning.
However, lovers of Spielberg’s hallmark big-budget, big-heart, action-saturated films should note that the modestly staged and unabashedly talky Lincoln feels like a new chapter.
Creatively it’s a three-way split, where Kushner’s chewy oratory-packed screenplay and Day Lewis’ mesmerisingly conflicted Lincoln are just as key as Spielberg’s abilty to marshal the elements.
In this unassuming, fiercely focused film (garbed in authentic gas-lit browns by DoP Janusz Kaminski) the speeches paint the pictures.
Oratory becomes the film’s action, providing blazing set-pieces as honest Abe unpacks the dubious legality of the Emancipation Proclamation, or Tommy Lee Jones’ grandstanding abolitionist tongue-lashes Congress.
Whenever the film seems too engrossed in its rhetoric, Sally Field’s defiant, damaged wife or James Spader’s deliciously cynical chief-vote-chaser emit useful emotional and comic jolts.
You can’t fault a single performance, from David Strathairn’s vulpine secretary of state down to Walton Goggins' wavering Congressional cameo.
Granted, there’s a surfeit of speechifying all round, and the careful balance between sentiment and reality ultimately dips into mournful hero-worship.
Nonetheless, a cinematic history lesson has rarely seemed so personal, yet so momentous
Steeped in the bitter political divisions of the Civil War, Spielberg’s thrilling film about hardwon freedoms is immersed in its own time, but speaks eloquently to ours.