Film review: Lincoln (12A)
IN A NUTSHELL
Daniel Day-Lewis is towering as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's pernickety take on the President's battle against the slave trade.
The Gettysburg Address is recited casually back at its author by muddy soldiers presenting their purpose for doing battle. From the outset, this is a lesson in undercutting the myth of Abraham Lincoln.
A biopic would have seen the figurehead in moments of triumph, scooping up the wounded and leading a nation, tattered flag in hand.
Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner have, instead, focussed on the last few months of his life as he engaged in the distasteful but necessary horse-trading required to see through the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery and ending the Civil War.
This, as aficionados of The West Wing would testify is a "process story". And aficionados of The West Wing will be the most eager supporters of this narrative tack.
In 1994 fictional Jed Bartlet commissions Josh Lynam to get him the votes. In 1865, Lincoln commissions the Secretary of State's unsavoury wheeler-dealers to issue bribes, jobs and jabs to bring over the waverers.
Deliberately dour and low-key, the movie is enlivened by speeches but nevertheless remains throughout more Commons tea-room than Fort Sumter.
Daniel Day-Lewis towers over the film. He is Professor Yaffle, stooped, mannered, wooden (in movement) but mellifluous and wise to his bones.
Above all, he is a man on a mission, not the model for a memorial. He infuriates his wife, scolds his son, favours another, mourns for a third and wants to get the numbers to work come what may.
He is prepared to prolong war to seal the deal and prepared to obfuscate to hide that discomforting fact.
Lovely cameos from the likes of James Spader, Jared Harrison, Sally Fields, David Strathairn and, most wonderfully, the cantankerous abolitionist Thaddeaus Stevens, as played by Tommy Lee Jones, illuminate the candle-lit dark while eloquence takes party rancour towards poetry.
But, still, that is the lot of the lengthy film. Vote-counting, shin-kicking and U-bend beards. The Thick Of It in the gloaming.
Spielberg, a man of images, lets Tony Kushner's rich and illustrious words do the work while Doris Kearns Goodwin's in-depth research carries the history lesson.
The director is left to create crescent moons from faces half in shade; to imbue brief battle scenes with Saving Private Ryan-esque authenticity; and to shoot Washington as Legoland.
Nation building is not all glory and principle. It is mucky compromise in smoke-filled rooms by roughnecks and dreamers who should know better.
Spielberg makes that film impeccably. Whether that is the right film to make is another question.