Steven Spielberg has managed to invent amazing fictional worlds with Indiana Jones Jurassic Park and ET.
He has also shown he is capable of creating historical dramas based on actual events with films such as Munich.
Now he has taken on the real challenge of depicting the life of Abraham Lincoln with Lincoln (from January 31st)..
Abraham Lincoln the president, who fought the Confederate South, freed the slaves and the first American president to be assassinated has become something of a mythic figure, a larger than life historical character. However, like most heroic men he had many of the trappings of an ordinary person.
So, even though Lincoln recounts the last few hectic months of Old Abe’s presidency Spielberg doesn’t go for the great epic approach with the grand sweep of history. This is more of a personal political history. It follows Lincoln through the crucial period leading up to the end of the civil war and the passing of the 13th amendment to the American Constitution which abolished slavery.
Apart from the opening sequence of feral hand to hand combat and a post battle scene later in the film there are few Gone With the Wind moments. What we are shown are the high level and low level political maneuverings in the White House along with Lincoln’s personal problems such as trying to prevent his own son from enlisting in the Union forces.
This is a film about Lincoln who managed to combine the backwoods boy, canny lawyer, droll raconteur along with political cunning. It is also a film about why history happens, not just what happens. We gain an understanding of how individuals are at the core of historical and cultural change.
It is not a simplistic account of the Civil War and Emancipation. There is a lot of dialogue which explores and explains those complex times.
The film is peppered with examples of Lincoln’s moral, political and personal notions of democracy, social equality and the conduct of government all of which display an astute political mind.
The president was given to little homilies and anecdotes from his time as a lawyer, using these tales, often with no discernible point. They do however give an insight into the workings of his mind.
Daniel Day Lewis gives an astonishing performance as the president. There is the gnarled face and the gangling stick figure we know from photographs and monuments but there is also the voice; a mixture of King James Bible, legal eloquence and folksy commonsense.
It's a talking heads film and his head does a lot of talking which is totally enthralling and entertaining.
Spielberg has been careful with the other historic figures such William Sewell (David Stratham) and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) who Lincoln must manage and negotiate. They are given their serious place in history, with limited histrionics and enough depth to understand their relationship with Lincoln and the history they created.
The histrionics are well served by Sally Field in an electrifying performance as Mary Lincoln in her battles with depression, the Washington hierarchy and Lincoln himself.
Spielberg has avoided depicting two moments which a lesser director would have included.
The assassination of the president by Booth is not shown but reported from offstage in the manner of a Greek tragedy and the Gettysburg address is recited by two enthusiastic teenage conscripts directly to the president on one of the battlefields.
It’s a smart touch as it probably mirrors the sort of recitation that every American child has learnt in civics.