SO who is your favourite President of the USA? Mine is Chris Ballew, the bald guy who plays the two string “basitar” and sings about Peaches.
Seriously though, I honestly had very little background knowledge on Abraham Lincoln before I experienced Steven Spielberg’s latest epic.
Way back in 1982, I sat through Great Moments with Abraham Lincoln at Disneyland. In this Main Street attraction, a dodgy animatronic Lincoln gave a speech. I probably wasn’t paying much attention at the time. After all, there were spinning tea cups to ride and autographs to collect from minimum wage actors in Disney character costumes. So let’s just say I thought that Abe had little facial expression and never moved his legs.
And then there’s Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. I had great fun with this extremely silly 3D action flick that portrays the president as an axe-wielding killer of the undead.
Besides the fact that Lincoln was the president and very tall, it’s fair to say that this film was really not “inspired by true events.”
Spielberg’s Lincoln cannot strictly be labelled a biopic. It starts during his second term as president. The Civil War has been raging for four years and Lincoln is determined to have the Thirteenth Amendment passed, outlawing slavery. Many of his Republican colleagues are supportive but would prefer to abandon the amendment should rumours of a Southern surrender come to fruition.
Much has been made of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. Let me state now for the record that he doesn’t disappoint. From his entrance in the very first scene, Day-Lewis embodies Lincoln. He’s not acting. He is Lincoln.
Give the man his third Oscar now. Although no recordings of Abe’s voice exist, Day-Lewis apparently spent a year researching the role, and after reading a hundred books on Lincoln and working on accents from Kentucky and Indiana, he looks, walks and sounds like the real deal.
Tommy Lee Jones is also a standout. Although playing a curmudgeon (again), he brings humility and wry humour to abolitionist Republican Congressional Leader Thaddeus Stevens. His exchanges with Day-Lewis are a masterclass in screen acting. Sally Field also contributes a strong performance as Mary Todd Lincoln, a complicated First Lady who is one of Lincoln’s major sources of strength and resolve.
The rest of the expansive cast is a who’s who of acting talent, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, James Spader and Jackie Earle Haley.
And now for what didn’t work for me. Spielberg directs with his usual precision but the film is nothing more than a political procedural. Deals are made. Democrats are coerced to cross the floor. At no time was I drawn into the events. I felt nothing more than an observer.
Perhaps US audiences will feel differently about one of their greatest moments in history.
My other complaint is John Williams’ obtrusive score. Previous collaborations with Spielberg have produced some of the most well- nown scores in modern cinema. This time, however, I found the orchestrations to be overtly manipulative.
Humorous scenes are matched with plucky upbeat banjos. Uplifting speeches are accompanied by swelling strings. Film scores should enhance the emotions stirred by what is happening on the screen. I was really distracted by these unnecessary emotive cues.
Overall, Lincoln will be remembered for its magnificent performances and not as a Spielberg masterpiece. It is not his best work but any Spielberg is better than most of your usual cinematic fare and worth a trip to the big screen in my book.
Lincoln opens in cinemas on February 7.