A new Spielberg picture is always a relatively big deal at the Menagerie, having sustained a twenty year unbroken streak of catching every one of his pictures at the movies (except for Amistad, that accursed thorn in my side which could be interesting to revisit in the light of Django Unchained), for me he is at the pinnacle of the pantheon, making equally flawed and fascinating films to be sure but demanding a rigorous appreciation, alongside his contemporaries Scorsese and Malick he is one of the omnipotent titans of modern commercial cinema and his influence on the art form and in particular my generations indoctrination to the movies is incalculable. Broadly speaking I think you can divide his work into two streams, there’s the state of the art action-adventure SF / fantasy blockbuster pictures which heralded his initial forays into the medium – the Indiana Jones quartet, the ET’s, the CE3K’s, the War Of The Worlds and Minority Reports – twin tracked with the historical epics that he began producing in the 1980’s, the aged reportage blended with his particular blend of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances, such as The Empire Of The Sun, Saving Private Ryan, The Colour Purple and of course his potential masterpiece Schinder’s List. There is an overlap between the streams, a love of cinema history and the work of his idols which lead him to make such curiosities as Always, 1941 and Artificial Intelligence, with a healthy appetite for pushing the formats technical foundations into uncharted waters with the likes of Tintin and Jurassic Park, or the rather more modest inception of the modern Hollywood blockbuster with 1975’s feisty aquatic mastications. With the frustrating news that his eagerly awaited Robopocalypse project has been recalled back to the manufacturing plant for further modifications his latest picture finally inaugurates a long gestating project which he has shepherded to the screen over many years, the directly named Lincoln serving as another historical reflection on American history and its current cultural combat. With a staggering 123 Academy Award nominations generated over his forty-year career might Spielberg be politically angling for that long elusive prize, directing a cast member to a best actor or actress Oscar win?
Based on the closing chapters of Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s celebrated biographies of one of America’s most exalted Presidents it is January 1865, the twilight phases of America’s the long and bloody American Civil war. In a rather ham-fisted opening two pairs of confederate soldiers plod through a rain-swept and mud splattered battlefield, pausing to exchange their thoughts with a softly voiced off camera entity, one white skinned and one black-skinned duo who immaculately recite the inspiring words of some recent speeches designed to reunite the union, emancipate the subjects of slavery and cease the bloodshed – cut to Abraham Lincoln, the commander-in-chief meeting a microcosm of his serviceman, portrayed with impervious majesty by screen chameleon Daniel Day-Lewis. Recently re-elected as America’s 16th President Lincoln has a twin mandate, to bring the war to an acceptable conclusion and simultaneously push through the 13th amendment to the US constitution, outlawing slavery and freeing over 3 million subjects, a purpose and promise that Lincoln enshrined through his emancipation proclamation two years hence. After consulting his cigar chomping Secretary of State William Seward (a vaporous David Strainhain) the shrewd experts of Washington diplomacy decide on a fraught strategy, to develop a political hit squad removed from the President in order to lobby, convince and even bribe 20 vulnerable house Democrats to side with their Republican opponents in support of the amendment, and a colourful trio of Svengali backroom operators are enlisted to procure the affirmative alignment with this crucial vote, all three portrayed with a memorable economy by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and a portly James Spader. Behind the closed doors of the cloistered White House Lincoln the mortal man emerges, his strained marriage with his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field, irritating) in a precarious position after the devastating death of two of their four sons during childhood, and the patriarch also enduring a rather fractious relationship with his second eldest progeny Tad Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who desires to enlist with the army and serve his country in his own unique way, a prospect resisted by his parents who perhaps understand better the horrors and potential sacrifice of conflict. With a parade of heavyweight character actors including Hal Holbrook, Michael Stuhlbarg, Walton Goggins, Jackie Earle Hayley, Jared Harris and a particularly memorable Tommy Lee Jones the chamber is set for a historic political procedural melded with the interlocking resolution of the civil war, a leader certain of his humanistic ideals and the historical opportunity to invigorate Americas stranding in the world through the pursuit of liberty and equality, if he can only chart the entrenched volatility of the times.
It took a while but I gradually warmed to Lincoln’s crusty, fossilised characterisations, after a rather tedious and context setting opening act you become adjusted to the films languid and metronome pace, perfect for a cold January Sunday afternoon if a little lacking in ardour, perhaps just a little self-important for its own good. It’s the West Wing with wigs with some astonishingly hirsute specimens on offer, Tony Kushner’s irregular script capturing a vivid dialect and pattern of communication which finally gains traction when the political chicanery begins to evolve around an hour into the picture. You can see that Spielberg wanted to give an impression of the man behind this monolithic figure of American history and it’s in these scenes that the film stumbles and falters, maybe it’s my personal problem but I can’t take Sally Field seriously (her Academy nomination is surely some sort of cruel hoax?) and although I generally enjoy Joseph Gordon-Levitt he is frankly out of his depth, massacred in one scene with his domineering yet sympathetic father, Day-Lewis effortlessly obliterating his petulant performance. Whilst Spielberg’s historical collaborators all perform sterling work, from Janusz Kaminski’s flickering cerulean, candle lit interiors to Rick Carter’s etiolated production design one wonders if he will ever cut himself loose from John Williams and his self-serving intrusive scores, this is clearly a film for responsible and thoughtful adults so why he insists in aurally telling us that ‘this’ is a crucial moment and ‘that’ development is so very very important with some rising orchestrations is faintly insulting. and it really begins to grate after a while.
Spielberg seems dully sullen and reverential of his subject and quarry, he keeps his camera locked down with a grudging respect not to overload the narrative with any sprawling or monumental techniques, covering scenes in masters and close-ups and only letting Lincoln raise his softly spoken, acclivous lilt during a few terse moments when the stakes at play are concisely expressed through some grandiose wordplay and hammering of desks. As expected Day-Lewis is gravitational, folding himself completely into the role with his polymorphic perfectionism, and a strong council of supporting players are particularly vindicated by Tommy Lee Jones compromising Congressional Leader Thaddeus Stevens – a more timely example to the contemporary gridlocked American senate couldn’t be more instructive – and the welcome return of James Spader to the big screen with a roguishly glint in his eye as he deftly heeds his presidents instructions. For a civil war era movie there is virtually no civil war on-screen, aside from an opening hand to hand melee and a closing fresco there is no combat in the picture other than the verbal sparring of Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives, in one of those ironic bends of the historical bell curve the mid 19th century actually saw the former as the true progressive party of liberty and equality, whilst the Democrats resisted the economic and ideological imperatives of freedom during this tumultuous campaign. Lincoln sees Daniel Day-Lewis orate for yet another golden figurine to complete the trilogy after There Will Be Blood and My Left Foot, he may well provide his commander with an award worthy performance and break his career long filibuster, like the Washington monument that houses his likeness Lincoln the film is statuesque and imposing, as staid and marmoreal as his alabaster skin;