The Abe Man
'I can't account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore one life as opposed to another, but I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice; that a subject coincides inexplicably with a very personal need and a very specific moment in time.' Daniel Day-Lewis
Well, I don't know about you, folks, but to me that sounds less like a working method than a description of some sort of disorder, but hey, it clearly works for Mr Picky as he won his third leading-role Oscar last week. Come on, Marvel, get him on board for the Avengers sequel or whatever! I'd like to see him try method-acting Thanos or the Abomination.
Anyway, as a conscientious sort of chap who cares about his readers I thought it behooved me to go along and actually have a look at Day-Lewis' turn in Lincoln, and as a purveyor of cheap jokes I worried that a lengthy biopic about the American Civil War and human rights might be a bit short on laughs, so I took my trusty Comparison Wrangler with me (apparently he has some sort of Illinois heritage and, as a result, a personal connection to Lincoln – I believe that, in his lawyering days, the 16th President failed to get one of his ancestors off a parking ticket, or something).
Following the movie:
'Okay, it's time for the question. What would you compare that film to?'
An unusually lengthy pause. Then: 'Forrest Gump meets Dirty Harry.'
I must confess to being more startled than usual by this latest gem. 'Explain,' I eventually managed to request.
'Well, he was always telling people little stories – he had a story for every occasion – like Tom Hanks, in Forrest Gump.'
'And Dirty Harry?'
'He kept squinting all the time. Oh, and he was looking for justice, too.'
Believe it or not, I do go to the cinema with this guy out of choice. I can't honestly endorse his appraisal of Spielberg's film, though. This is one part historical portrait to two parts political drama, notably lighter on martial arts vampire fighting than last year's somewhat similar Lincoln bio-pic.
The bulk of the film occurs in the space of a few weeks early in 1865. Lincoln has just been re-elected as US President, which is good, but the Civil War is in its fourth year, which is bad. That said, the Confederacy is virtually exhausted, which again is good, but Lincoln has not yet managed to get the US Constitution amended to outlaw slavery, which is also bad. For various political reasons it is absolutely vital that the amendment be passed by the House of Representatives before peace breaks out, but in order to do this Lincoln needs to manufacture a two-thirds majority which he simply does not possess.
Most of the film depicts Lincoln's various endeavours to cobble together the majority required, which results in a number of plotlines going off in various directions – a fervent abolitionist played by Tommy Lee Jones has to be persuaded to moderate his position in order not to frighten the metaphorical horses, a dodgy political operator played by James Spader is retained to get votes from Lincoln's Democratic opponents by offering sinecures, peace overtures from the South have to be carefully finessed, and so on. As I've said before, I'm not a great expert on American history, and my knowledge of their political system mainly derives from watching early seasons of The West Wing, but I found this all to be fascinating, challenging stuff, and I did come away wanting to learn more about the history of this period.
Less successful, I thought, was material concerning Lincoln's relationships with his various family members – Mrs Lincoln is played by Sally Field, who to be perfectly truthful I like less than Mary Elizabeth Winstead from the other movie, and Lincoln's eldest son is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – cue the predictable whisper of 'Hey, it's Batman!' from the seat next to mine. If this stuff is here to try to humanise an iconic figure, or possibly portray him as a hero with feet of clay, then it doesn't quite work, possibly because Spielberg's heart isn't quite in it. The film isn't quite a hagiography of its subject, but it does have an aura of reverentiality to it, and while it's by no means humourless, it is definitely steeped in gravitas.
Daniel Day-Lewis is operating on full power as Lincoln himself, but – as usual – I found the results to be oddly mannered and ostentatious. His performances are always arresting and remarkable, but for me he never disappears into the character he's playing: instead he straps the accoutrements of their personality on like some ornate suit of baroque armour. I found Tommy Lee Jones' performance, which isn't nearly so technically refined, far easier to relate to.
But then this is clearly intended as a serious film on an important topic. Spielberg's strike rate with this sort of thing is rather variable – and personally I prefer his films when they involve people being eaten by special effects – but this is certainly towards the top end of this section of his oeuvre, engaging, illuminating, crisply scripted, uniformly strongly played, and unflashily-directed. 'Enjoyed' is probably the wrong word for my reaction to Lincoln, but I certainly appreciated the skill that had gone into making it.