Slave Labour of Love
What a handsome, important film Steven Spielberg has made; an actor’s showcase that’s pregnant with insight and detail. That, one imagines, is the review the director’s imagination conjured as he put the stoic and once again, utterly transformed Daniel Day-Lewis through his paces, filming this long gestating biopic of unlucky theatregoer, Abraham Lincoln.
They’d be nothing disingenuous about that one line review and yet there’s a void at the heart of this worthy Oscar bait; an absence of moxie, a lack of that distinctly cinematic concision that can act like a Calvary charge, powering a story forward. It’s as though Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner forgot they were making a movie and became consumed by the idea of producing an historical document. Paring back the dialogue, substituting oratory for visual metaphor, talk for grandiose setpieces, was thought to be insufficiently reverential; an insult to a politician whose infamy is built on words and backroom machinations rather than moments that are fundamentally cinematic.
No one’s going to lambast Spielberg for making a thoughtful and carefully researched film, nor for being content to be a deliberating witness to history rather than an active participant in the tale, but watching Lincoln’s succession of conversations, each perfectly weighted for information and pathos, makes you yearn for a different medium – one better suited to the intimacy of each encounter, the density of such dialogue and the narrow focus on the legislative process that ended in the abolition of US slavery: Lincoln, you feel, would have made a wonderful piece of television.
One can argue that the passing of the 13th amendment to the US constitution and victory in the civil war were the crowning achievements of Lincoln’s presidency; that everything built to those milestones, so why waste time trying to encompass the scope of an entire life, a story that would, by necessity, be compromised by ellipsis, by omission, as movie biopics inevitably must be? Perhaps because a grand, sweeping biopic is a distinctly cinematic enterprise: life, as Hitchcock said, with the dull bits cut out.
The film as made is a story worth telling; Spielberg doesn’t patronise his audience by unpacking the language or truncating the politics; but it’s laid out with, what for this director, is a distinct lack of chutzpah. One never feels alive or inspired watching this history, merely intrigued, as if watching a film made for a museum exhibit: well-made to be sure but a shoe-in for best picture? Not in this world.
None of which should detract from the quality of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in the title role. It is, in many ways, the personification of the movie itself: measured, understated, occasionally animated and often highly convincing. It’s the turn of a committed and versatile character actor and inevitably the supporting cast seem somewhat ordinary by comparison. An exception might be Sally Field, but even there, one’s left with the sense of an actor giving a good performance while Day-Lewis lives and breathes as the eponymous president. Well, until he doesn’t.