Steven Spielberg’s second exploration of slavery in America’s formative years (after 1997’s Amistad, set some twenty years earlier) is an extremely restrained yet piercing look at how its abolition was brought about. Dominated by yet another barnstorming performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, Spielberg forgoes the perhaps-expected adulating biopic and instead examines the wheeling and dealing that Abraham Lincoln pragmatically employed in order to bring out about his ultimate goal. This is a film that, in much the same way as its protagonist, goes about its business in an unfussy yet statesmanlike way: moving its story forward through negotiations and compromises, and in so doing letting events shed light on the character of the man.
Picking up as the end of the Civil War is in sight, Tony Kushner’s script (based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) centres on Abe’s second term in office, as he is faced with reuniting a country still deeply divided on the issue of slavery, as well as a shortage of votes in the House of Representatives. He finds he is too radical in the eyes of his allies, led by William Seward (David Strathairn), but not radical enough for the likes of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). Added to this is his troubled relationship with his wife Mary (Sally Field), who is still grieving for one of their sons and whose volatile behaviour threatens to overflow into his political life.
It’s difficult to think of a film more low key in Spielberg’s back catalogue than this one; he under directs it almost to a fault. Hollywood’s Bearded Wonder has spoken publicly about how he tried to make the filming process as in tune with its historical setting as possible: actors were called by their character names, mobile phones and other connections to the modern age weren’t allowed on set, and so on. This extra effort seems to have paid off; the smells and sounds of the period slowly reach out from the gloom. Much of the action (if you can call political negotiations action) takes place indoors, in cold wood-panelled rooms only partially lit by pale wintry sunshine. It’s an appropriate choice of mood - shadowy deals taking place in shadowy rooms.
Just because it lacks the typical Spielbergian touches doesn’t mean he’s forgotten how to deliver precision-engineered drama however. In amongst the scenes of deal-making, deal-breaking, doubts and assertions, the tension in the plot builds imperceptibly to a rousing climax. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Lincoln achieves his goal, but the manner in which it is achieved generates plenty of nail-biting along the way. And the portrayal of Lincoln himself is lovingly shaded: this is not the cleancut, saint-like moral guardian that history has come to view him as, but an altogether more human figure, willing even to extend the war if it gives him the extra bargaining chip he needs. Cleverly, the final moments of the president are dealt with quickly and quietly; reduced to an epilogue, they are unable to overshadow the thrust of the story, and serve to ensure that his achievements in life aren’t overshadowed onscreen by the manner of his death.
It’s almost pointless to highlight Day-Lewis’s remarkable performance, so used to them are we by now. It is as charismatic and gravitas-laiden as you could hope for, and feels like an honest, perfectly judged portrayal of the man. Of the supporting cast, Tommy Lee Jones stands out brightest as the hardline abolitionist Stevens, delivering his usual gruff routine but here in service of a worthy cause (and with a terrific wig). A few more trademark Spielberg moves might have turned this into a bolder, more memorable retelling of a crucial turning point in US history - it occasionally rambles like one of Abe’s anecdotes - but clearly that wasn't the aim; instead it’s a subtle and evocative exercise in historical re-enactment that doesn’t get in the way of its story.