Film: "Lincoln"; Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lee Pace, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones; Director: Steven Spielberg; Rating: ***
Unlike the usual biopics, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" is literate, cerebral and heartfelt, with some brilliantly managed moments, albeit being a documentation that centres on the passing of the 13th Amendment of the American Constitution - the historic amendment that abolished slavery in the United States.
The film captures the last four months of Abraham Lincoln's life and as the 16th President of America. The events of the movie take place just after Lincoln's re-election. The civil war is in its fourth bloody year, and there is dissent in the House of Representatives.
The film opens with Lincoln having a casual chat with some black Union soldiers, who were former slaves, about the lack of equality between blacks and whites. The approach seems very casual, which is difficult to digest, but it shows the path the narration will unfold.
Well, anyone who knows anything about history already knows what happened, but it is the detailing of events and its outcome in the White house, which makes the film unique. It's a great, enthralling and interesting history lesson for an audience which doesn't mind digging their teeth into a topic instead of just seeing it rush by.
It portrays Lincoln as an old man, exhausted by war and personal catastrophes, yet being a devastating master of charm and exquisite manners, skilled in imposing his authority with a genial anecdote, a man with the natural leader's trick of making people want to please him.
It also captures him as a scared husband and a gentle, caring and understanding father.
Spielberg blends Lincoln's myths with surreal cinematic romanticism with period mood and imagery with appropriate verbal articulation. This all may sound exciting but it indeed requires a lot of concentration to follow dozen of bearded characters through political discussions in the first 20 minutes.
The second half does not rise to the occasion of capturing the excitement of the voting process for or against the amendment, as we already know how it is going to end.
What makes this two-and-a-half-hour political saga less tedious are the performances. Every artist has given his/her 200 percent. Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, with his physicality, make-up and mannerisms, is the heart of the movie.
Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln with her maternal and soothsayers instinct gives a formidable performance that matches Daniel's oratory skills.
The dialogues are expressively striking, contemplative, and ultimately moving. In the scene where the president wakes up two telegraph operators in the middle of the night to send a message and talks to them of their lives and experiences most definitely does not crackle with tension. Instead it is beautiful and moving.
And in another scene when Lincoln states "Am I in trouble?" when he is reminded that Mrs. Lincoln is waiting for him in the carriage is unforgettable in its simplicity.
Things you can rely on in a Spielberg film are outstanding cinematography, a John Williams soundtrack and fine performances down to the smallest roles and "Lincoln" delivers on all those fronts.
Tony Kushner's screenplay makes the issue of slavery its centre-piece, but sets it within such a long crossfire of backroom intrigues, political skullduggery and rhetorical bluster that actual drama and the human element of the movie is lost.
At the end, if anything is flawed in this movie, it's neither the performances nor the technicalities of the film production aspect, but the script itself. The film oscillates between something of humanistic realism, with all its dirt and beauty, and of a reverential Hollywood mega-production with sweeping orchestration and grandiose sentiment.
This is a good, very nearly perfect film, that's just hindered by a lack of cohesive vision.
Watch it for history's sake.