Film

American movie of the week: Lincoln

Peter Bradshaw

Abraham Lincoln's second term has been brought to the screen by Steven Spielberg as a fascinatingly theatrical contest of rhetoric and strategy.

Politics and power: Bruce McGill, Daniel Day-Lewis and David Strathairn in Lincoln.

It is a nest of high politics for the white ruling class, far from the brutality and chaos of the battlefield. At its centre is a gaunt Shakespearian figure, somewhere between Caesar and Prospero.

In Lincoln, Spielberg has made a moving and honourably high-minded film about this world-changing moment of American history. It’s his best movie for many years: I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to see it and to experience the pleasures of something acted with such intelligence and depth.

There is admittedly sometimes a hint of hokum; how you react to the film may depend on how you take the opening sequence in which Lincoln, seated like the famous statue but with an easy smile, listens to two black soldiers telling him how they see the war — a slightly Sorkinian scene that ends with one reciting the Gettysburg Address while walking away from the president. It is a flight of fancy, not strictly plausible, but very effective in establishing a mood music that swells progressively throughout the picture.

Lincoln exerted a grip on me; it is literate, cerebral, heartfelt, with some brilliantly managed moments and, of course, a unique central performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. He portrays Lincoln as a devastating master of charm and exquisite manners, skilled in imposing his authority with a genial anecdote, a man with the natural leader’s trick of making people want to please him. He speaks in an unexpectedly light, clear voice that is nonetheless shading off into the maundering monologue of an old man, exhausted by war and personal catastrophes.

Day-Lewis, like Laurence Olivier before him, is a master of the voice and the walk: it’s almost as if he has alchemised his body shape into something different: bowed, spindly and angular, gnarled as a tree, exotic and yet as natural as his tall hat, often holding the straight right arm at the elbow with the left behind his back: the civilian equivalent of military bearing. His Lincoln is aware that his strength is ebbing; he is on the point of ossifying into a legend incapable of action. He is often seen in semi-darkness, his face turned down in contemplation of possible, terrible defeat, or the certain terrible cost of victory: like the Aaron Shikler portrait of John F Kennedy.

The moment in which Lincoln has to raise the flag outside a naval building, after a short, self-deprecating speech he has written on a piece of paper — kept in his hat — is a superbly managed scene: modest, undramatic, gently comic. Sally Field is outstanding as Lincoln’s wife, nursing rage and hurt that almost boils over. Another sort of film would have concentrated more on these personal crises, but Spielberg has made the right structural decision in containing them and dramatising the formality, the procedure, the outward political ritual on which everything depends. And what a feat from Day-Lewis: the nearest thing a 21st-century biopic can get to a seance. — © Guardian News & Media 2013

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