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Lincoln

Lincoln

By Andrew Latimer • July 13th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
LINCOLN (MOVIE)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Release date: June 10th, 2013
Running time: 150 minutes

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner
Composer: John Williams

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn

Lincoln

I actually laughed out loud when David Cameron said he inherited a faltering economy, only months after he and the Liberal Democrats entered into a coalition. Gordon Brown said the exact same thing before him and Tony Blair before him. So it goes on. That’s not to say this is a lie; the economy has been chaotically (mis)managed since the middle of the 20th century and nosedived into fiscal disaster after the Reagan/Thatcher administrations of the 1980s. But it shows that we continually blame history for our current woes – and demonstrates that at some time or another, we always had economic concerns.

Tough as inheriting a precarious economy may be, it’s nothing compared to what Abraham Lincoln faced when he took presidential office in March 1861. By the time he reached the White House, he was looking at seven states that had already seceded from the Union (with four more to follow), the combative issue of slavery, leading a Republican party that was only seven years old and tackling socio-political turmoil at the dawning of the American Civil War. Add to this the fear that the economy could collapse should the Confederacy triumph and it starts to give perspective to notions of thorny politics today.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons Daniel Day-Lewis requested an extra year to prepare for his role as Honest Abe in Steven Spielberg’s new biographical epic Lincoln. There aren’t many actors who would be granted such a request, save for Day-Lewis’ proven track record in monster character roles. Spielberg also probably thought it was worth investing in groundwork since his last film, War Horse (2011), was a critical failure. The director has, in many ways, gone back to the roots of his successful film-making career: the historical war epic. Right through from Empire Of The Sun (1987) and Schindler’s List (1993) to Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Munich (2005), Spielberg has carved himself out as one of the most prolific and engaging war-time dramatists of our age.

Lincoln

Lincoln is set in the four months before the president’s assassination, concentrating mainly on the efforts to abolish slavery and end the war. As a result, Spielberg focuses surprisingly little on the president himself; he doesn’t launch into the psyche of the man, choosing to discount his quiet Kentucky youth, his early career as a lawyer and Congressman, even the questions around his sexuality and marriage. He touches on the latter briefly by revealing the tense relationship Lincoln had with his wife (played by a shrieking and squealing Sally Field), but mainly sticks to the confrontational and backdoor antics that occur throughout the US political machine.

The film is a leisurely 150 minutes so takes it time to unravel the complexities and nuances of the democratic system. There’s a quote early on which appeals to Lincoln’s unhurried disposition and that of the film: “I could write shorter sermons but once I start I get too lazy to stop”. The timeline consist of Lincoln’s goal to pass the Thirteenth Amendment and Spielberg shows that it took tremendous political skill and guile – mainly in convincing, coercing and contracting fellow politicians. Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), commissions a trio of representatives to seek out members of the house whose votes they can sway. Despite the pace of the film matching Day-Lewis’ grandfatherly performance, it unfurls the events with dexterity and clarifies just how delicate an operation the emancipation of the slaves was.

But Tommy Lee Jones is the scene-stealer in this epic. He plays Thaddeus Stevens, a man whom Lincoln disagrees with on all fronts – except on slavery. The two have profound colliding opinions on matters of social governance and economics, but are willing to Lincolncooperate for the benefit of the nation, to end the war and liberate the slaves. Lee Jones’ measured, humbling performance as the man risking it all to stay true to his principles is inspired – a role he’s not delivered for some time, if at all. For me, this is what gives the film its Oscarific edge; Day-Lewis’ vulnerable performance and Tony Kushner’s poetic script are not enough to deem this Best Picture worthy, but add in extra details such as Lee Jones and the film’s adorning soundtrack and it starts to make a strong case.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if Spielberg should have renamed his film. ‘Lincoln’ suggests more of a character study, a deep biopic of a man who was hated by politics but loved by history. In this respect, the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 would have made for a fascinating film as both men battled for control of the Illinois legislature. Or perhaps an insight into how Lincoln’s humble roots empowered him with the desire to study would explain how he had such grand ambitions once he was elected. Spielberg’s film is still extraordinarily watchable and deals with difficult political dilemmas, commendably so, but one could argue the title is misleading. And for a president whose legacy is based on inspirational rhetoric and commanding oration, there’s a distinct lack of analysis as to how he became such a mesmerising public speaker.

Despite this, Lincoln recalls an age of abolitionism and constitutional philosophy which was majestic. Disputes over justice, equality and freedom were sealed to the core of democratic and diplomatic politics, and members of parliament were imbued with levels of statesmanship we tend not to find evidence of today. To look at history in this way is of course nostalgic and is to avoid the corruption and dishonesty which inevitably existed, but the US was itself battling anachronistic moral maxims that were coming into contact with a new era of reason and ethics. Spielberg’s carefully deliberate film mirrors this ongoing evolution and displays a warm wistfulness for the days in which social, martial and personal liberties were founded. For this, it’s a wondrous historical epic.

Lincoln

Andrew Latimer

Andrew Latimer

Andrew started out writing theatre reviews in Edinburgh while studying for a degree in Arts Journalism. His interest in film came after attending several festivals across the UK. In particular, he discovered a love of documentary cinema, specifically the work of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.

Andrew loves films which investigate stories of undocumented struggle and solitude. Some favourite docs include Grizzly Man, King of Kong, 5 Broken Cameras, L'encerclement, Inside Job and Shoah.

Andrew runs a Scottish arts review website, TVBomb, and you can follow him on Twitter at @ajlatimer.

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