Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Lee Pace, Joseph Cross, Jared Harris, Gloria Reuben, Michael Stuhlbarg and Peter McRobbie.
Writer: Tony Kushner; based on the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin).
Director: Steven Spielberg.
Every ounce of time-honoured respect a nation has seen fit to bestow upon The Great Emancipator is addressed frame by frame in Steven Spielberg’s stately masterwork, Lincoln. Though this grand depiction of a country fighting its way to the moral high ground is positively overflowing with richly drawn characters and consummate artistry, Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as The 16th President provides the human centre of what could have very easily devolved into a vivid but stiff history lesson.
Working with a hypnotically poetic script from his Munich scriptwriter Tony Kushner (largely adapting Doris Kearns Goodwins’ book, Team of Rivals) Spielberg focuses his narrative on President Lincoln’s second-term efforts to pass the Constitutional amendment that will end the scourge that is slavery and, by proxy, the Civil War. Richmond, Virginia, is falling after a ruthless military assault; the South are weakened, yet demand concessions that will allow them to keep the region’s shameful economic lifeblood.
This is a work that finds exaltation in the rhythms of political powerbrokering; a cast of great actors have latched onto Kushner’s words and Spielberg’s staging with a brio that suggests they know being party to such a project come along all too rarely. The forcefully cantankerous Tommy Lee Jones (as Thadeus Sullivan), David Strathairn (as Secretary of State William Seward), Hal Holbrook (as Preston Blair), Lee Pace (as Fernando Wood) and John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and a wonderful James Spader as The President’s foot-soldier procurers of potential swing voters are all standouts, though no cast member puts a foot wrong.
It is left to Day-Lewis to provide heart to the story, though the great actor (surely his generation’s best) never stoops to the sentimentality of which his director is often accused; in this regard, their pairing is perfect. Day-Lewis‘ Lincoln is prone to delivering eloquent speeches steeped in down-home values, deep intellect and complex morality, imploring his fellow Americans to change the course of their homeland, but he is also revealed as an irrevocably scarred man. The profound scenes of grief he shares with wife Mary (a superb Sally Field, whose drawing-room meltdown in the presence of her husband’s stoicism is an acting highpoint of the year) over the death of their son are truly wrenching.
Spielberg’s profile on the cinematic landscape is a unique one. Every one of his films is expected to be a work of genius, but he is critiqued with a heightened, haughty air rarely afforded his contemporaries. He is not above criticism or blame (the …Crystal Skull debacle was a career low point; War Horse, a maudlin misfire; The Adventures of Tintin, underwhelming), but many of his works are frustratingly undervalued (Minority Report; AI; War of the Worlds) because they are burdened with expectation.
Injustices perpetrated by evil men based on race have been central to the great directors’ body of work (Schindler’s List; Munich; Empire of the Sun), though few mention his past explorations of America’s slave history, The Color Purple and Amistad, as ‘classic Spielberg’. No such injustice will befall his take on Abraham Lincoln, which soars both as an auteur’s vision and as a collaboration with artists at the top of their game (cinematographer Janusz Kaminski; editor Michael Kahn; and, most impressively, production designer Rick Carter).