Every so often you get two films coming out around the same time with similar subject matter. It happened a few years ago with Truman Capote, Kevin Costner wasn’t the only one robbing the rich to feed the poor in 1991, two planet killer meteorites hit the Earth in 1998 and randomly there were two volcano movies the year before that. It has happened once again with Lincoln but Spielberg has chosen to play down the vampire hunting in his version and is concentrating more on the whole abolition of slavery thing. So its a kind of like a sequel to Django Unchained.
But before we get into that let’s talk about Steven Spielberg for a minute because I’ve not had a chance to do so yet. Any film with his name against it as director deserves attention. Personally there are not many contemporary directors I would say that about. Christopher Nolan and David Fincher would come in that category but in some respects they couldn’t hope to compare to Spielberg. This man has brought us some of the most entralling moments of the last 40 years of cinema. Think of the beginning of Saving Private Ryan (or the tank attack at the end), being chased down a tree by a car in Jurassic Park, the UFO from Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the whole of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
That isn’t to say I think the man has done no wrong but even his weaker films generally have great set pieces and for this I give you the breaking glass scene in Jurassic Park 2. He isn’t my favourite director (anymore) but the films he chooses to make are interesting, unpredictable and varied. I will always be amazed that anyone could be editing Jurassic Park by night while they are shooting Schindler’s List by day.
It is with all this in mind that I sat down to watch Lincoln. Like Saving Private Ryan it starts with a battle but this time we get nothing of the build up, we are straight in to guns and bayonets. If we were given time to think about it a comparison of those two openings would highlight how little warfare had moved on between the 1860s and the 1940s but we don’t get that time. We very quickly jump to a wonderful scene that serves as a master class on how to establish your story and your protagonist. In one brief conversation between Lincoln and two black infantrymen we know everything we need to about this president, the attitudes people have toward him and equal rights and the significance this has in modern America. There is a lovely moment where David Olewoyo playing a black corporal speaks with ludicrous ambition suggesting to The Commander in Chief of how one day, in 100 years or so, a black man might even be able get as far as holding a high ranking position in the army, a major or an sergeant. Other directors may have felt the need to spell this point out but Spielberg respects the intelligence of his audience and moves on. The film then marches on at such a lick that you wonder how it is possibly going to last the two and a half hours running time but at around about the 30 minute mark the foot is seamlessly taken off the accelerator and we settle into a well paced and fascinating lesson on American society and politics.
The subtlety and intelligence of the start of the film is maintained throughout and you really get a sense of what the 13th amendment meant to people at the time. There are clearly some hideously racist opinions held by several characters but unlike a film such as Django Unchained, no one is portrayed as a one dimensional bigot. Similarly unlike Tarantino’s attempt to tackle the issue of slavery (What’s the opposite of subtle?) there is no impression by the end that everything will be alright now. The abolition of slavery was clearly a huge step forward but the film acknowledges that there was still a long way to go before racism ceased, still is a long way to go.
Lincoln clearly isn’t a movie like Minority Report or War of the Worlds, it doesn’t tell a whimsical story like Catch Me If You Can or The Terminal and it isn’t even an emotional and gripping historical drama like Schindler’s List or Munich. It intricately shows us one moment in history and at times you almost feel like Simon Schama should be narrating it. It is directed in a very restrained way and although there are some rousing moments it is a calm and modest film. This is most obvious in the closing moments.
What we get instead of action sequences is lots of impassioned conversations in ornate rooms about how the amendment will be achieved. Now I’ve watched Season One of 24 and the whole of The West Wing but I still don’t really understand the American political system so I had to pay attention. Some of it did go over my head but that’s good, that’s how I’m going to learn. Again, Spielberg doesn’t feel the need to explain things to me slowly in a way I can easily understand and I’m grateful for that. In fact the West Wing comparison is a good one. If you are familiar with that show you will recognise the discussions about how to secure those last few votes in congress and you will imagine it is Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe up there wandering around the corridors rather than David Strathairn and Daniel Day Lewis. (If you do know The West Wing it is also amusing to see antiquated versions of things you will know from that show, like the map adorned War Room. It feels a bit like watching an episode of The Flintstones when all of the modern stuff has been reproduced in wood and stone.)
So then to Daniel Day Lewis who I, in my ignorance, declared on this very blog shouldn’t get the Oscar. Well he certainly deserves it, there is no question about that. To say that some actors don’t just play a part, they actually become the character sounds like gushing hyperbole but you can see what they mean with this guy. When you consider what it must take to pull off the kind of performances he manages you begin to see why he only makes one film every three or four years. The fact that he has next to no public persona only makes it easier to see the person he is playing and never any glimpse of the actor underneath. This man takes his craft very seriously and it pays dividends. Personally I still want Hugh Jackman to get the award but you couldn’t blame anyone for voting the other way.
Also up for a statuette is Tommy Lee Jones and he does go the other way, that is definitely him up there on the screen. When he first comes on it wouldn’t have been out of character for him to put on a pair of shades and pull out a neutraliser but without having to do so he slowly makes you forget this first impression and his performance evolves into something moving and nuanced. His performance really works throughout, even when he is laconically barking at people early on and he really adds something to the film.
The rest of the cast is filled out by a list of either reliable or up and coming actors, all of them highly watchable. Actors like Sally Field, James Spader, Joseph Gordon Levitt, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris and Lee Pace. You’ll notice the gender and ethnic imbalance in that list and special mention should also go to Gloria Reuben for her strong and quiet portrayal of the first lady’s lady in waiting. (It’s ER, that’s what you’ll know her from. That doesn’t need to bug you now like it did me.)
Lincoln is a beautifully crafted film and on this occasion Spielberg doesn’t need to give us the trademark set pieces. A less mature director may not have shown his restraint and you get the impression that he didn’t want his own significant name to over shadow that of his protagonist. This is not as showy as his other films but is no less a showcase for his talents. With this film Spielberg has further cemented himself as one of the all time great Hollywood directors but this time you just have to pay more attention to see it. The fact that the film has 10 BAFTA nominations but the fact that not one of them is for him suggests that not everyone has paid attention. if you do pay attention you will find that Lincoln is an intricate and rewarding history lesson.
Now roll on the next Tin Tin film.
Is this one for the kids?
It is a 12A and while it has some violence, scenes of war and a barrow full of severed limbs I think it is fine for your average 10 year old. Unfortunately I just don’t imagine that your average 10 year old will be very interested.