Many will watch Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln expecting a biopic. It has all the makings of one, from its title to its Oscar-buzz generating lead performance and its lengthy running time. Those expecting a film that tells the story of the sixteenth President’s life will be disappointed by Lincoln, which actually offers something far more interesting.
The film focuses in on the final months of the first term of Lincoln’s presidency; they will ultimately be the final of his life. Facing fierce opposition from the opposing Democratic Party and from forces within his own Republican Party, Lincoln becomes embroiled in a battle to secure votes for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which has already been passed by the Senate but still needs approval from the House of Representatives. Although many think of the Emancipation Proclamation as the moment that the US freed its slaves, it was in fact this constitutional amendment that made their freedom legal and binding. This battle involves much of the persuasive oratory for which Lincoln was famous, along with no small amount of corruption, as votes are bought and deals are made behind closed doors. The climactic scene in which the votes are tallied is enormously satisfying; sentimental but deservedly so.
Spielberg is reined in from his more melodramatic tendencies by Lincoln’s complex and ambitious script, penned by Tony Kushner and based on the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The highlight is, unsurprisingly, Daniel Day Lewis’s mesmerising central performance, but he’s also well supported by a distraught and weary Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. Tommy Lee Jones is a snarling and powerful Thaddeus Stevens, who manages to steal several scenes. The film is set in wartime but avoids battle sequences and focus instead on the intricacies of American government, and Lincoln is far more interesting for it. The President’s inevitable assassination hangs over the film throughout, and when it comes it almost feels an unnecessary, tacked on addition. It only seems fair to forgive Spielberg this moment of weakness; Lincoln is a pleasant surprise, and in no way your average Academy-baiting biopic.