dir Steven Spielberg
scr Tony Kushner
prd Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg
with Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, Lee Pace, Jared Harris, Gloria Reuben
release US 9.Nov.12, UK 25.Jan.12
12/US DreamWorks 2h24
Presidential appeal: Field and Day-Lewis

straithairn jones gordon-levitt
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
Lincoln It's difficult not to walk into epic Spielberg Americana without expectations, but he catches us off-guard with an unusual approach to the iconic 16th president. More political drama than biopic, the film is talky and office-bound, but the finely written script is anchored by a remarkably wry central performance.

In January 1865, Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis) had just won re-election and was determined to end four years of civil war. But he knew that he first had to change the Constitution to outlaw slavery, a move Secretary of State Seward (Strathairn) reluctantly supported, enlisting a trio of shady negotiators (Spader, Nelson and Hawkes) to get the votes needed in Congress. Meanwhile in the White House, Lincoln is juggling pressure from his wife Mary (Field) to keep their oldest son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) from joining the military.

The story takes place mainly over the course of this one historically significant month, outlining the astounding political process that resulted in a rare constitutional amendment. This means that the film is essentially made up of West Wing-style political wrangling, which screenwriter Kushner writes beautifully, packing each exchange with delicate nuance and sharp humour. And it's eerily resonant in today's fiercely charged debate about human rights.

This also gives the amazing cast plenty to chew on. Day-Lewis is unusually restrained, shining in Lincoln's quieter moments with his family, while investing a warm vein of casual wit into his interaction with powerful political allies, bullheaded enemies and even the people in the streets. In the sprawling supporting cast, Field may be 10 years too old to play Mary, but she shines in every scene, capturing a delicate balance of intelligence and emotion. And Jones is also terrific as the caustic Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.

As expected in a Spielberg historical drama, the production design and effects work are impeccable, beautifully augmented by Janusz Kaminski's textured cinematography and John Williams' surging score. Most remarkable is Spielberg's restraint in the more iconic moments, refusing to over-egg emotions or wallow in moments of tragedy or triumph. And in an extended epilogue set in April 1865, the thoughtful conclusion of the war echoes in the oddly reticent depiction of Lincoln's assassination. Higher energy levels might have made it more entertaining, but this warmly cerebral approach is vital and important.

cert 12 themes, violence, language 21.Nov.12

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© 2012 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall