It is intriguing that America’s horrific slave past has been the subject of two recent high profile films, Quentin Tarantino’s outrageously brave spaghetti western Django Unchained and Lincoln.
The latter, directed by Steven Spielberg, recounts the last months of Abraham Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) life as the American (and Republican) president championed the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery while finding a conclusion to the Civil War. Probably coincidental that two of America’s most well-known directors have tackled this issue, it is refreshing that both deliver essential films for 2013, as we view the evil atmosphere of the past while understanding that sexual slavery still exists away from the public’s gaze.
Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals from a script by Angels of America and Munich scribe Tony Kushner, Lincoln isn’t a biopic as such, more an ‘amendment pic’. It’s a thriller about changing the law, as we view the 13th Amendment get debated in the US House of Representatives, and the dodgy backroom deals needed to make it pass, which is riveting viewing.
Unusually for a Spielberg film, especially an epic, the grey looking film isn’t a feast for the eyes. It’s an actors’ film. With a formidable cast of talented veterans and indie stars, the Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan director lets the performers take control. And what a cast: David Strathairn as Secretary of State, William Seward, Tommy Lee Jones as anti-slave Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Lincoln’s most interesting character), Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, Jared Harris as Ulysses S Grant etc. Despite the cast and amazing performances, from Jones and Day-Lewis especially, the film does get bogged down with a few ‘this is acting’ scenes, especially the husband and wife scenes between Day-Lewis and Field, which account for a large part of the family drama portion of Lincoln, the least successful arc of Lincoln. But it wouldn’t be a Spielberg film if the family tensions (husband and wife, father and son) were absent. These themes are far less captivating than the politics, or the family dramas embedded in other Spielberg epics such as ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and even War Horse.
Family drama aside, Lincoln is an important historical thriller. One that shows an important time in America that contains much interest for those living outside the US of A. Unbelievably; it has moments that are very funny. Lincoln’s tendency to interrupt important historical junctures with ’I’m just an old small town lawyer’ stories are particularly amusing as are the trio of dodgy lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) at Lincoln’s employ to conjure up some dubious deals (as well as the comic relief) to pass the 13th Amendment. Lincoln is another triumph for Spielberg, who (the last Indiana Jones installment aside) continues to fascinate 38 years after Jaws.