All the president’s men – Lincoln review

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By Simon Miraudo
February 6, 2013

Lincoln is directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th President of the United States. It feels sacrilegious to even type that combination of words, as if putting all that prestige in the one sentence will have the same skin-melting effect of staring into the ark from Spielberg’s Raiders. It seems more like the winning answer from a game of “Oscar Bait” themed Mad Libs rather than a real flick. Not so. Lincoln is an actual thing that exists, and you can now watch all 150 minutes of it yourself.

The fear of it being too perfect – and perhaps too cynical – a collaboration will be one recurring expectation of nervous filmgoers. America’s most iconic director tackling America’s most iconic commander in chief, brought to life by one of the acting trade’s most valuable, immersive performers: you can probably whiff the worthiness through the screen. Playwright Tony Kushner – adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals – wisely minimises the scope, spotlighting the final months of his presidency, during which time he tried to end both slavery and the Civil War. As a result, we’re rewarded with a focused, remarkably human production, anchored by Day-Lewis’ understated performance as the softly spoken, long winded, devilishly funny Abraham.

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The picture opens with the President engaging some Union soldiers in a low-key meet and greet after a particularly bloody and muddy skirmish with the Confederate army. He sits quietly while a pair of black soldiers and a pair of white soldiers recite back to him his Gettysburg Address; flustered, and practically blushing, it’s an unexpected introduction to such an idol, despite him sitting in the famed memorial pose. It’s one of the few moments we share with ‘the people,’ instead spending the remainder of the feature with the warring politicos on either side of the slavery debate.

Back in Washington, Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) encourages Abraham to push through an amendment to the Constitution that will end this blight on American history, knowing full well that the impending Confederate surrender could see the Emancipation Proclamation reversed. They employ a trio of persuasive, ethically dubious republicans (James Spader, John  Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) to canvass votes from the few democrats who might be willing to split from their comically villainous party. However, their biggest obstacle might be the renegade Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who is so zealous in his efforts to abolish slavery (and potentially grant blacks the vote), that he’s scaring off the more conservative republicans. Jones, who may not have even realised he was being filmed during Men in Black 3, screams back to life with this electrifying turn. That Kushner would grant the legendary curmudgeon some of the finest old-timey zingers is understandable. “You are more reptile than man. So low and flat, that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.”

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The Spielberg we know and love and are sometimes frustrated by mostly gets out of the way, letting his esteemed cast and Kushner’s script do what they do best. Only on a couple of occasions does he relent and treat himself to a grand, sweeping spectacle of a moment, complete with John Williams’ swelling score and Janusz Kamiński’s smoky, candlelit cinematography (don’t read that as a denigration of their otherwise nice work). For the most part, he just puts the camera where it needs to be during the lengthy debates and quiet conversations, trusting his colleagues to carry the load. In that way, the Spielberg who directs Lincoln reflects the Lincoln depicted in the film; an idealised leader who recognises his flaws and steps aside to let other, more capable people get the dirty work done, stepping in only when inspiration is needed, or when an audience needs to be startled awake.

Lincoln is the best kind of biopic; one that offers us only a glimpse of a person’s life, but informs us of the subject better than a more sprawling story ever could. In Kushner’s incisive script, we get to see Lincoln’s increasingly fractured relationship with troubled wife Mary Todd (Sally Field, who gets off to a shaky start), as well as his tortuous, doomed efforts to keep son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from serving in the war. We understand how this even-tempered man could usher such remarkable changes through a seemingly impenetrable bureaucracy, while witnessing the fiery incorrigibility that ultimately made him a target for assassination. Day-Lewis’ work here is a reminder that the finest actors can transcend the art form, and actually create for their real subjects a better legacy than that which has been left by the history books. Then again, I should lower my enthusiasm just a tad. It wasn’t Day-Lewis who abolished slavery, after all.

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To think that I’ve not even found space to mention some of the other players. Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Walton Goggins are hardly slouches. People of colour may seem to be under-represented, but they are there; often in the background, just as they were unfairly contained in the 19th century. Mary Todd’s confidante Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) asks how the President will feel about blacks having greater prominence in the white man’s world. Abraham admits that he doesn’t know them all that well, though he’s sure he’ll adjust. It’s another unexpected, honest moment from a movie full of them. “Unexpected, honest moments.” It’s been a while since we’ve been able to describe a Spielberg movie as having any of those.

4.5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Lincoln arrives in Australian cinemas February 7, 2013.

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