Lincoln - movie review

The funny thing about Lincoln is that it’s actually funny. Who would have thought the hero of the Civil War and the savior of the Union would turn out to be a long-winded old duffer fond of stories that go nowhere – and in a Stephen Spielberg film no less.

Yes, Daniel Day Lewis’ performance as the 16th President isn’t quite up there with Lincoln’s other comedy highlights – his appearance in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the best comedy cameo ever at the end of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – but the fact remains: for a film that could have easily been a dour, lifeless, utterly reverential look at the closest thing the United States has to a saint, this isn’t afraid to crack the occasional joke at Lincoln’s expense. Even Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter couldn’t manage that. 

The temptation with political biopics is to try and put their subject’s achievements in context by summarizing their entire lives. As anyone unfortunate enough to have seen the Margaret Thatcher biography The Iron Lady knows, this doesn’t always pay off. Thankfully, despite the all-encompassing title Lincoln focuses on the last few months of the Civil War and Lincoln’s life, when he was struggling to get the slavery-banning Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution passed by Congress.

While Lincoln had effectively ended slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation, that was a wartime measure that Lincoln (himself a lawyer) doubted would hold up in peacetime. Worse, the main plank of his push to ban slavery was that it would end the war with the South sooner, as with no hope of maintaining slavery their will to fight would be crushed. But the South were already losing: if Lincoln and the Republicans (yes, in 1863 the Republicans were the anti-slavery party) couldn’t get the Amendment passed before the war ended, chances are they never would and the door would be left open for slavery to creep back into American life.

Sure sounds like a barrel of laughs. But thanks in large part to the screenplay by Tony Kushner (the playwright behind Angels in America), this talk-heavy film moves forward at a rapid pace through a series of always entertaining meetings between Lincoln and his various underlings and supporters as he tries to stitch together a deal based largely on bribing out-going Democrat members of Congress. Lincoln’s crime crew in charge of bribes – including John Hawkes and a robustly flamboyant James Spader – are so entertaining as they wheedle, cajole and dodge bullets on their mission to corrupt the political process that they deserve their own spin-off television series.

While the supporting cast is a who’s who of faces from the last decade of high-end television drama, including Jared Harris (Lane from Mad Men) as Ulysses S Grant, Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) as the pro-slavery leader of the Democrats, Walton Goggins (from The Shield and Justified) as one of the more craven Democrats, and Adam Driver (Adam from Girls) as a Union telegraph operator Lincoln tells one of his endless stories to, it’s Tommy Lee Jones as the vehement abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens who really stands out. He chows down on the scenery like it was a rival ham, but he’s a politician who knows – eventually – when to dial it down to get the job done.

In contrast, both Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Lincoln’s oldest son) and Sally Field (as Lincoln’s wife) are stuck with fairly dull subplots. He wants to fight, she doesn’t want him to fight because she’s already lost one son (to illness, not vampires despite what Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter may have claimed) and if Lincoln doesn’t like it why doesn’t he put her in a madhouse. A madhouse, I tell you! It’s no wonder Daniel Day Lewis comes out of this looking like the best actor alive; everyone around him is basically shouting and waving their arms around half the time.

The overall story may be a bit of a tough sell to anyone not already familiar with American history; there are a few glimpses of Civil War fighting and the occasional outdoor scene but for the most part this is a film about backstage political wrangling that largely takes place between white men standing around in dark rooms. And there are a few too many outright cheesy moments, especially towards the end – or “endings”, as there are at least three of them. But Lewis’ performance more than makes up for all this film’s flaws.

His Lincoln isn’t above scheming and bending – if not outright breaking – the law to achieve his goals, and his fondness for long-winded stories sees at least one character storm out of the room in frustration. But Lewis gives him a warmth, a gentleness, and a sense of constantly striving for the right even when committing all the political sins his opponents accuse him of, that makes him feel like a literal “father of the nation”. It’s the tension between this urge to make him larger than life and the dirty political realities he’s dealing with that makes this more than just your average episode of The West Wing. Well, that and Tommy Lee Jones’ amazing wig. They could make a Lord of the Rings-style trilogy about that clump of horsehair.

Anthony Morris

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