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Film review: LINCOLN, from Built For Speed

Abraham Lincoln is such a towering and mythic figure in American history it seemed inevitable that American cinema’s great story teller Steven Spielberg would make a film about him. Lincoln is not, however, the emotionally manipulative epic we might have expected from Spielberg, instead it’s a dour, low-key and thoughtful look at an introspective and conflicted man.

Like the Hitchcock bio, this film focuses on a specific defining event late in the title character’s life. In this case it’s something that, on face value, seems pretty dull, the passing of a constitutional amendment. This was, however, the 1865 amendment to abolish slavery in the midst of the civil war. Lincoln was desperate to pass this amendment before the war ended as he feared that, in peace time, the confederate states would reassert laws that allowed slavery. He was subsequently forced to initiate a mad scramble to secure support for the amendment from the various factions of his Republican Party and the Democrats and to fend off what he saw as premature peace offers from confederate representatives.

The film is, therefore, as much about the minutiae of politics as the broad sweep of history or Lincoln’s life.  Consequently, we spend much of the film trying to keep up with the complex political finagling surrounding the vote.  At two and a half hours this could have been a real slog but a clever, witty, Aaron Sorkin-like script from screenwriter Tony Kushner enlivens this dry subject.

A uniformly excellent cast also helps.  Daniel Day Lewis gives Lincoln such quiet dignity, intelligence and subtle wit it’s hard to believe we’re watching the same actor who played Gangs of New York’s Bill the Butcher.  His Lincoln is an avuncular, thoughtful man prematurely aged by the stress of war and the moral dilemma of potentially prolonging the conflict to achieve a lasting freedom from slavery.  At times he seems to be an almost mystical figure but the film quickly brings him back down to earth as he becomes embroiled in the politics of vote-wrangling, payoffs and moral compromise or a furious row with wife Mary Todd (an excellent, if underused, Sally Field).

Golden Globes grump Tommy Lee Jones is just as memorable as Thaddeus Stevens the sharp-tongued leader of the radical Republican faction and one of the most vociferous opponents of slavery.  James Spader is also terrific as eccentric Republican numbers man WN Bilbo who looks like a debauched dandy as he bribes wavering Democrats to support the amendment.

While most of the film takes place in the House of Representatives or political back rooms, the film doesn’t let us forget the horrors of the surrounding war and includes some confronting scenes of human carnage.

Lincoln requires patience and commitment from the audience but it’s a fascinating, superbly made film about a man defining his political legacy and in many ways America’s identity.

Nick’s rating: Four stars.

Classification: M

Director(s): Steven Spielberg

Release date: 7th Feb 2013.

Running time:  153 mins.

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