Steven Spielberg artfully tears a page from history to immortalise the efforts of the 16th president of the United States to abolish slavery during a turbulent period of deep division within the House of Representatives.
At a time when multiculturalism is trotted out ad nauseum by politicians as modern society’s badge of honour, Lincoln is a stark reminder of the sins of the past and how far we still have to go to create a world of true equality.
Tony Kushner’s eloquent script condenses the final months of the president’s life into an elegiac portrait of a husband and father whose courage in the eye of a political storm tested his resolve and his marriage.
The ebb and flow of dialogue is exquisite, and potentially dense and baffling philosophies are distilled into digestible exposition so it’s easy to follow the cut and thrust of arguments on both sides of the political divide.
A terrific ensemble cast is led magnificently by Daniel Day-Lewis.
So often berated for grand-standing and chewing scenery, here the statuesque London-born actor is the model of restraint, internalising his statesman’s maelstrom of emotions. His performance is no less affecting, and the physical transformation is startling, but our eyes are constantly drawn to him because of that quiet intensity in a sea of screaming, shouting brow-beaters.
A powerful prologue on blood-stained battlefields segues neatly to January 1865.
Two months have passed since Lincoln’s re-election, the American Civil War rages on for a fourth year and the president’s thoughts turn to the highly contentious slavery bill.
Secretary Of State William H Seward (David Strathairn) counsels against the motion, given the current make-up of the House of Representatives. However, Lincoln is adamant that the Bill must be passed before the end of the war and he enlists William N Bilbo (James Spader) and Colonel Robert Latham (John Hawkes) to procure votes.
Inside the House, fervent abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) continues to rile the Democrat opposition led by Fernando Wood (Lee Pace).
Meanwhile, Lincoln contends with the mood swings of his emotionally fragile wife (Sally Field), who is so often his rock.
Lincoln is a magnificent technical achievement, distinguished by Janusz Kaminski’s colour-bleached cinematography and John Williams’s haunting score. Every shot is beautifully framed, capturing every facet of Rick Carter’s production design and Joanna Johnston’s costumes, which evoke the era so vividly.
Admittedly, the running time is slightly long. Yet, as the film ends with Lincoln heading to an ill-fated performance of Our American Cousin, we give Spielberg’s film a rousing vote of confidence.
by Damon Smith