With twelve Oscar nominations and nearly as many BAFTA nods, Lincoln is no doubt the front-runner in the 2013 awards season. With an all-star cast and an iconic subject, this historical epic offers everything you would expect from such an esteemed production.
Amidst the brutality of the Civil War, America’s most revered President struggles to resolve the ravages of national conflict, whilst attempting to pass an amendment that would free the slaves of America. Unfortunately, Lincoln must contend with the scheming and political agendas of his own cabinet to achieve his goal of emancipation.
With so much expectation in the wake of recent nomination announcements, it cannot be said that Lincoln does not hold up to such positivity. For the most part, the film cannot be faulted from a technical standpoint. Straight from the opening scenes of brutal savagery on the battlefield, the scene is set of a nation at war. It is impressive that as the film continues this atmosphere of conflict is retained throughout, despite very little further footage of the Civil War. The reason for this is that Lincoln is more a film of politics than warfare, as Abraham Lincoln is forced to go to all lengths necessary to reach his goal of freedom for all.
Leading the cast in the titular role is Daniel Day-Lewis, the two-time Oscar winner often thought of as the epitome of screen acting. Having last won for his outstanding performance as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, a lot of expectation rides on his performance as Lincoln. Unlike the broiling turmoil of Plainview, Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance here is a lot more restrained, relying on his immense oratory skills to give Lincoln a voice to match his historical stature. As the film progresses and the character moves to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment, Day-Lewis’s confidence matches his character as he is content to recall long and arduous anecdotes, winning over those around him with just his presence. This is helped by Steven Spielberg’s focused direction, framing each scene around the central character in a way that can only be designed to embody the national love of this historic figure.
As absorbing as Day-Lewis is as a screen presence, there are still issues with his performance, particularly in scenes opposite Sally Field, who plays Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd, a woman in grief for the loss of one of her sons. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Spielberg film without some familial loss, and this is heavily emphasised by Field, perhaps too much so. In contrast, the understated performance delivered by Daniel Day-Lewis appears awkward at times, almost unwilling to express the emotion asked of by the scene. However, there is no denying his ability to embody the role to its fullest, particularly in the scenes dominated by political wrangling that make up the bulk of the film.
It is in this way that Lincoln is particularly gripping, as it does not shy away from the shady affairs of government despite the reverence for this historical context. The debate over the 13th Amendment has split the House of Representatives, and so Lincoln instructs his cabinet to find the votes needed to have it passed; those of the opposing Democrats. David Strathairn fulfills his role as Secretary of State William Seward to great effect, questioning the wisdom of risking defeat in the House but helping despite his misgivings. The true stand-out in the supporting cast is Tommy Lee Jones as the outspoken Thaddeus Stevens. Unlike many of the cast, who successfully fulfill their roles but only in a functional manner, Jones embodies a true character of sarcasm, directness and even hilarity. The moments of humour that come from his insult-slinging and direct dialogue are unexpected but welcome, as they give the somber tone of the film some life.
Whilst the cast should be commended on the authenticity of their performances, this does present a problem. No doubt in an effort to set the correct context, the film’s dialogue is replete with pompous archaic dialogue, resulting in difficulty deciphering what is playing out on screen. However, this becomes less of an issue as the film continues and the dramatic atmosphere increases. It is important to say that at two and a half hours, Lincoln more than fills its running time. Unfortunately, this does mean that the final scenes are rushed and do not give the correct dramatic emphasis to the film’s various sub-plots.
The truth of it is that whilst it is truly a worldwide moment in history, Lincoln is pre-occupied with American accomplishments. Not that these should be trivialised, and the racial issues of this part of American history are handled with care, but the self-congratulatory nature of the film’s final act is more than a little sickly. The notion of a US film honoring America for being home of the free is not surprising in anyway, but it is unfulfilling as a biopic. Abraham Lincoln seems to be side-lined for much of the film, as his underlings force the issues that he has set into motion. Instead, he appears as little more than a floating, deified figure amidst a political drama, delivering orders, encouragement and ponderous anecdotes.
Thanks to the accomplished work of its cast and emotive combination of Spielberg’s direction and John Williams’s score, Lincoln is a true example of what awards season has to offer. Daniel Day-Lewis seems undaunted by the challenge of playing such an iconic figure, and for the most-part manages to do so to great effect. It will be no surprise if this film about America’s formative years wins big at the Oscars, but perhaps its cloying representation of the father of American politics could have done with a more unbiased view. As the film repeatedly points out, no one is more loved that Abraham Lincoln.