As his mates Bill and Ted would say, excellent

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.

After some early expositional throat-clearing Lincoln emerges as elegantly and deftly plotted as Amistad was laborious.

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.

Film Details

User Reviews

    • Bickle

      Jan 11th 2013, 22:23

      You gave The Dark Knight Rises 5 stars, yet you give this 4, despite the fact that it is superior in almost every aspect: Acting (undeniable), Directing (Theatrical and emotional, as opposed to TDKR's messy and staggered effort), Production (Yes, TDKR had a large amount of effects and set pieces, but Lincoln's production was evocative and elegant, proving you don't need a ridiculous budget to create something that is great to look at. Scale accounts for nothing in film, quality over quantity applies here too. I know the films are worlds apart, but to say that TDKR was the better film, and that it should have been nominated for best picture, is frankly ludicrous. /rant

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    • Jareth64

      Jan 14th 2013, 12:27

      Seems like a fair review, but I've long stopped considering TotalFilm a reliable reviews outlet. I mean; The Hobbit 5/5, The Dark Knight Rises 5/5, Prometheus 4/5, Kill List 5/5, Looper 5/5, Skyfall 5/5... I just hope the pay the studios are giving you goes towards a better magazine! All the films listed there are 3/5 or worse.

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    • lisaheden

      Jan 21st 2013, 15:07

      how it happened..cant believe....just check

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    • FBJHolloway

      Jan 23rd 2013, 23:39

      The film was boring and long, another fictious history lesson by American writers. Give me batman anyway. The fact I had to pay to watch this really grates me. Two stars for Daniel day Lewis and costumes. The rest is forgettable.

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    • macateb

      Jan 27th 2013, 3:33

      Great acting as expected from DD-L. However this is a film for people who want a history lesson and not entertainment. Far too long and boring for me.

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    • willliampalmer

      Feb 3rd 2013, 14:29

      No mention of Tommy Lee Jones? His performance was second only to the obviously superb Day-Lewis.

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