A period film always looks at the past through the filtering window of the present. This happens with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln in small ways. Consider the way in which Lincoln’s youngest son regards glass plate photographs, the way a modern child beholds an iPad and the 'wink, wink’ manner in which the electrical telegraph wires are visually prominent when urgent messages are received.
Spielberg’s direction builds on the actors’ coherent performances
On a grander, more significant scale, the story of Lincoln transpires at the beginning of Abraham Lincoln’s second presidential term as he strategises pushing through legislation on the illegality of black slavery. Spielberg’s film premiered in the United States, just as Barack Obama – the first Black American President – ended his first term. Spielberg first knew of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Abraham Lincoln book Team of Rivals in 1999, before its 2005 publication, and when Obama was a virtual unknown, so that relevance was not (initially) planned. But how can any contemporary viewer watching Lincoln not have a sense of the how a country built on racism can transcend that limitation? So it is that a film resonates with its times by luck as well as design.
Lincoln also aspires to be truthful to the era it depicts. The production design’s period detail is fastidious and the night scenes appear as if they were shot in 1865’s gas lit evenings. But the key aspect of faithfulness is in the intelligent script by playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich) as it depicts the execution of a political solution to a human problem. The language of Lincoln is sometimes elegant, frequently dense, and often awkward. The script captures the style of government communication in the days when spin went by the name of rhetoric, but is not always easy on the ear. Fortunately, though the dialogue may sound impenetrable, the film never is. Even if you’re left scratching your head wondering 'What did they say?", at no time are you likely to ask, 'What did they mean?" And as the camera glides gracefully along, Spielberg’s direction builds on the actors’ coherent performances – and visually astute casting – always giving a strong sense of who the participants in this heavily populated story are, and where it is going regardless of the convoluted talk.
Unlike his co-stars Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field who never quite lose their Hollywood imprint, Daniel Day Lewis succeeds in immersing himself in the challenging title role. His face and stature embody the mythic proportions of the historical figure, yet Day Lewis also humanises Lincoln with the slight stoop of a man who carries an invisible weight – the future of a nation – on his shoulders and a believable and fearsome temper.
However, there is one Hollywood touchstone inherent in this biographic portrait. Lincoln’s tendency to bamboozle and charm his adversaries and friends with anecdotes that are designed to either deflect or to direct the listener to or from certain facts, recalls James Stewart’s quaint cowboy in Destry Rides Again (1939). Having borrowed John Huston’s voice for There Will Be Blood, it is gratifying that Day Lewis came up with something less recognisable for this President’s speech patterns.