Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook.
Written by: Tony Kushner and (based on the book) Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Running Time: 150 mins
Release date: 25th January 2013
It’s the biggest nominated film this year with 12 from the Oscars and 10 from the BAFTAs. It has double Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis and cinema’s most famous film director, Steven Spielberg at the helm. It’s full of excellent supporting actors and is written by award winning playwright Ton Kushner and it’s about one of America’s most famous President. What could possibly go wrong? One word: length!
It’s the fourth year of the American Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln has been re-elected but has got some serious work on his hands. He needs to end the bloody conflict that has divided his country as well as get his bill through Congress for the freedom of slavery. Determined to win, he faces a tough battle, even inside his own cabinet, to get the votes he needs. At the same time he has to cope being a father to a son who wants to join the fighting and a wife who will stand by her husband but is still grieving the lose of their younger son.
I can fully understand why the awards bods have taken this under their wings. It is an epic film and I mean epic! The grandeur of the piece is amazing. Spielberg knows how to fill a screen and he does it with aplomb. Every frame is well constructed and interesting. It is lavish, it is brimming with detail and he manages to throw in some neat cinematic tricks.
The performances, as you would imagine, are uniformly excellent. Spielberg is a not only a master of the cinematic art but he has a way of getting the best out of his actors, often surrounding himself with the best of the best. Here is no exception. Sally Field had to beg Spielberg to play Lincoln’s long-suffering yet supportive wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. One of Hollywood’s finest, she doesn’t disappoint, even if the role doesn’t really stretch her talents like her male counterparts.
Reliable David Strathairn is perfectly cast as Lincoln’s right hand man and Secretary of State William Seward and James Spader is almost unrecognisable as a man who helps persuade Democratic congressmen to vote the right way. Tommy Lee Jones is excellent as Republican Congressional Leader Thaddeus Stevens. His turn gives the film some well deserved light relief as he worries that Lincoln would turn his back on the cause. It is classic Jones and it is a worthy nomination from the Academy.
The film belongs to Day-Lewis. Uncharacteristically, this is a rather underplayed, quiet performance from the actor and it works. This gentle, quietly spoken man with a story for every occasion yet still has a presence of power is one of Daniel’s finest. Will he win the Oscar? Not sure but it is a pitch perfect delivery and worth seeing for him alone.
So what’s the problem? It’s the length. At 150 minutes, you feel every second and it is incredibly wordy. There is very little action and the first 45 minutes seemed like the longest of my life. Unless you have some idea of American politics or have studied the Civil War, you probably won’t mind being told about it but you just feel bamboozled with facts, names, events. An hour in and nothing much has happened but then it picks up as you start to understand what is going on. Thankfully, the vote itself is the film’s highpoint and Spielberg turns the tension up to 11, gripping the audience for it’s few minutes but then it makes the mistake of letting you believe it is coming to an end…and then there’s some more…and then more still.
The other thought going through my mind is how will it sell in our modern mulitplex world. I think it will do well in the first week thanks to the nominations it has received but many will be turned off by how long it is and I’m guessing word of mouth won’t be strong. A worthy film, a film full of greatness but an hour shorter and less dialogue would have made this a masterpiece. I am a great admirer of Spielberg’s work. He is one of the few film makers who really understands how to use the cinematic art form and how to tell a story. Unfortunately, it’s far from Spielberg’s best and sadly, it didn’t do it for me. And I really wanted it to. Not my best film of the year.