Last year, Abe Lincoln went vampire hunting; this year he’s slaying forces of darkness again, but with Spielberg at the helm. A remarkably restrained Spielberg, too. Just as well; dialling back the sentiment and show-stopping set-pieces lets Lincoln the man emerge, and allows us to digest the wordy complexities of the plot. A film for the head more than the heart, it would be almost too dry but for doses of humour and an underlying suspense.
To illustrate politician and man, Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner (Angels in America) have chosen a brief yet significant episode in Lincoln’s career. It’s only a few months and it ends with his assassination – which it more than likely precipitates – but it makes for a compact, manageable film even while the meaning is epic.
To pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, Lincoln faced a dilemma: how to get it passed without fanning the ire of the South and possibly prolonging the Civil War. Not to mention risking splitting his own Republican Party. The strategies he uses are the stuff of the main plot, with subplots designed to illuminate his private life and character – husband, father, conflicted – and humanise the icon. They do, because Daniel Day-Lewis reveals his humanity so dexterously. The film’s momentum, however, comes from the political machinations.
These demand your full attention. Lincoln’s dilemma is a film-maker’s nightmare – it has to be explained, not shown, so Kushner smuggles a lot of exposition into his normally flowing, lyrical dialogue. Miss it, and you have to scramble to follow those machinations and who’s doing what to whom and why. Fortunately, an experienced cast, including Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader, helps.
Spielberg’s restraint is mirrored in Janusz Kaminski’s intimate and almost painterly compositions, evoking without overstating the importance of a moment, and John Williams abandons his big, busty scores for something more corseted. This is not a film that will sweep you away, but it gives some insight into the high and low ground of politics and what it means to lead a nation. Fittingly, it opens here on the 148th anniversary of the amendment’s passing.
LINCOLN, directed by Steven Spielberg
OPENS JANUARY 31
Films are rated out of 5: 1 = abysmal; 5 = amazing