Sincere and earnest, without being triumphalist, Lincoln is that rare historical biopic: one that engages and entertains without getting in the way of a brilliant story. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including three for superb performances led by Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, this is one of the big ones for 2013.
Numerous reviews have stated that a crash-course in American history is needed before viewing but - 'Ah, here, leave it out' - this will fit the bill: Lincoln takes place in the last four months of the iconic President’s life, before his untimely death in April 1865. The story focuses on his second term and his efforts to abolish slavery by ratifying the 13th amendment to the constitution.
There are hundreds of books and papers written on Lincoln: a Google search alone will elicit over 68 million results, and he is still one of the most quoted, better known American Presidents. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a self-educated, conscientious, fair, hard-working and surprisingly accessible family man who, despite great personal loss following the death of two young sons, strove to ensure that all Americans, regardless of race, were equal, and to end the Civil War.
Mirroring the war-torn mood of the time, the film is dark, with little colour beyond the black and white-clad politicians, the grey, smoke-filled chambers and the blood-spattered North and South flags on the battlefield. The most noticeable colour is in Mary Todd’s gowns - exact replicas of the outfits worn by the First Lady, played here by the Oscar-nominated Field, who gained 25lbs and lost 20 years to play Lincoln’s wife. Unlike many Spielberg films, there is no flashy cinematography or tricks and no unnecessary sentimentality; just perfect editing, leaving the focus on this fascinating, inspiring story.
However, what the naturalistic sets lack in colour, the characters and political story more than make up for. Jones is also Oscar-nominated for playing one of the most entertaining characters of the time, Thaddeus Stevens. He, much like the Harvard-educated Texan who plays him, is straight-talking, driven and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Spielberg has been working on Lincoln for almost a decade, and much of that time was spent trying to lure Day-Lewis to the role of the revered President. When he finally succeeded, Spielberg said that he had four glorious months with the 16th American President, thanks to the method actor, who stayed in character for the duration. After seeing the film, it’s easy to comprehend the loss, which Day-Lewis spoke of in an interview, that he also felt once filming wrapped.
Based on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, it was Tony Kushner’s second screenplay that piqued Day-Lewis’ interest, enticing him to tackle the role. The actor, the film, the legend of the great man and we the audience are all the better for it. Although two-and-a-half hours long, there are no superfluous scenes or characters; in fact it's the opposite, as you may leave wishing to know more about the private life of this public man. There are over 140 speaking parts and each one is impeccable.
Each year, there are very few films that merit, and indeed improve, on a second viewing. This is one such film. Little did Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (McGill) know when he uttered these historic words after his President’s death, just how accurate he would be: "Now he belongs to the ages."