The opening scene in Steven Spielberg’s latest history lesson has the camera sweep over a civil war battlefield and close in on bloody hand to hand fighting, shown in graphic gruesome detail.
It makes you think that we are about to be immersed in the battles of the American civil war in the same way Spielberg threw us viscerally onto the D Day beaches in the mind-blowing opening 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.
But the opening battle scene of Lincoln, though epic in scale, lasts little more than a minute or two. The rest of the movie is a very talky affair set almost entirely in the corridors of power in Washington.
The political battles that take place here however are shown to be as critical, if not more so, as those actual battles waged in the American south. And especially if you like history and American history in particular (which I do), Lincoln is a fascinating look at the political machinations that brought about the abolition of slavery in the US.
The movie is bravely framed over a tight two-week period beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s second term a President. And the nods to President Obama, just beginning his own second term, are palpable. Foremost among these are perhaps the inference that the current occupation of the Presidency by Barack Obama, a black man, is the ultimate achievement of the events Lincoln depicts.
Lincoln is not a subtle film. It is an extremely American one too which, despite the fact that most of the world had already abolished slavery by 1865, suggests the US’s abolition as a world-changing act.
Its pomposity is underlined by a score of solemn military trumpets and sentimental strings. And some scenes, for instance the dissolve at the end of the movie from a flickering flame by the President’s death-bed to an earlier speech, are saccharine, clichéd and old-fashioned.
In fact, and especially in comparison to Lincoln’s contemporary releases such as the Life of Pi, Django Unchained and Zero Dark 30, which all tread new ground, Lincoln does feel like an old-fashioned movie.
It is perhaps because of this that it is a slightly underwhelming film. Because despite some of the above criticisms, Lincoln is actually a very good, extremely well made movie.
It is also an intelligent one, with a very detailed focus on the politics at play in passing what is undoubtedly one of the most significant pieces of American legislation.
This is a superb history lesson in fact, which shows us the compromises that were made (by white politicians), the swallowing of pride by very public figures and the priorities that the President was weighing up in terms of finishing the civil war or getting the abolition act passed.
All this and the shady political practices of the day are very clearly communicated, which is no mean feat. But the film also has moments of real drama, notably the anticlimactic sounding climax, which is the vote itself.
And despite some rather corny camera work there are moments of real cinematographic beauty too such as Lincoln being watched by his black servant as he walks out the White House in the final stages, and where the film would have been better to have ended.
That there is only a minimal presence of black people in a movie about the abolition of slavery and that they are mostly servants of the white elite feels patronising and unfortunate. Though as the film is set almost entirely among the political class of Washington this is probably an accurate reflection of how things were. It is strange that despite the seriousness of Lincoln, it is Tarantino’s playful Django Unchained that really shows the horrors of slavery.
The most moving moments of Lincoln though are undoubtedly the reactions of the few black characters to the abolition act being passed, including a lovely scene involving Tommy Lee Jones’s character.
Of course part of the film’s strength is the acting; Daniel Day Lewis is predictably brilliant. His portrait of America’s most revered historic icon is thoroughly endearing.
Yet unlike some other Day Lewis films, such as There will be Blood, this is not a dominant performance from him. Yes some actors are wasted (David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but Tommy Lee Jones is as powerful a presence as ever, playing one of the movie’s most interesting characters. And Sally Field too is very strong, portraying Lincoln’s wife as a complex and sympathetic person.
If anything Lincoln himself is presented as just too saint like to be credible. He seems charming, wise and pretty much faultless, even when dealing with his fragile wife and past demons. Yet it is this strength of character, depicted both softly and commandingly by Day Lewis that helps make the film such an enjoyable watch.
An American history professor’s dream come true perhaps, but Lincoln is much more than that. It is a really good film with clever story telling and great performances. It is hard to say why it feels slightly underwhelming. Perhaps because it is just so predictably good.