Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has been over a decade in the making. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s political biography “Team of Rivals,” the celebrated director first optioned the book back in 2001. Hoping to repeat the success of Schindler’s List, Liam Neeson was originally attached to play the revolutionary American president; however, after years of rewrites forced him to leave the project, Spielberg had the foresight to recast Daniel Day-Lewis in the titular role. Indeed, lingering script problems notwithstanding, Day-Lewis’s mesmerising central performance has ultimately made Lincoln’s lengthy gestation worth the wait.
Set during the climactic final months of the American Civil War, the film focuses on Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution. As well as imposing a federal ban on slavery across the Union, the amendment would almost certainly help broker a peace deal with the Confederate South. Nevertheless, despite this and the president’s moral justifications, many in Congress fear the economic consequences of emancipating the country’s millions of slaves. Thus Lincoln must employ all of his political cunning and conduct several underhand deals if he is to leave his most enduring mark on US history.
Without a doubt, Day-Lewis is the jewel in Lincoln’s star-studded crown. Well known for his painstaking research and attention to detail, he adopts the wizened voice and careful stoop so convincingly, it’s almost as if he’s channelling the ghost of Honest Abe himself. Of course, assisting this bravura performance is a first-rate supporting cast, including David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Gloria Reuben. Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones deserve particular praise, bringing depth and gravitas to their relatively small roles as Frist Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens.
Yet aside from being superbly acted, Lincoln is also a beautifully crafted film. Having reconstructed iconic locations like the House of Representatives debate chamber, Rick Carter and Jim Erickson’s scrupulous production design helps to ground proceedings in a historical reality. Grand and imposing, their sets never distract from the scene at hand and still allow for intimate exchanges between characters. Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer Janusz Kamiński does an excellent job of photographing these beautiful interiors, employing thick waves of cigar smoke and heavy back lighting to evoke a sense of period and occasion.
Visually stunning, it’s a shame that Lincoln’s screenplay doesn’t toll with the same brilliance. Adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, the script is certainly intelligent, but feels more suited to the stage than cinema. Certainly, after its dramatic opening battle, the film is largely devoted to long, dialogue-driven scenes depicting characters debating political strategy and the morality of slavery. While Spielberg does his best to keep things engaging by mixing camera angles and allowing actors to roam the set, there’s simply too much rhetoric.
Despite its slow pace and long running time will likely test the attention span of even the most ardent cineaste, Lincoln‘s impressive performances and a steady directorial hand, then, Lincoln is one of the best – and most beautiful – Hollywood biopics in years.