Some biopics shroud politics in tepid character study. The Iron Lady opted for a speculative ageing drama instead of focusing on Margaret Thatcher’s fascinating politics—it was a huge mistake. Luckily for American history buffs, Lincoln knows it’s all about the backroom rhetoric, to a fault or not.
What’s for certain is that both have huge performances at their centre. Where Meryl Streep’s was a talented impersonation, I’m inclined to herald Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abraham Lincoln for the fact that he had no YouTube clips to study, only 150-year-old notes on the President’s character. He does a stunningly good job of inventing a man out of the notes and portraits we’ve all seen before. The praise is not out of left field; the acting—excuse me, Acting—is the film’s biggest strength.
The performances are grand, often operatic. I expect this was a conscious direction on the part of Steven Spielberg, as one dramatic verbal bout is literally followed by an opera. Luckily, both Day-Lewis and Sally Field, playing the First Lady, are up for the task and it works well.
The political story, though rightfully at the centre, is a bit of a challenge.
It should be simple enough: abolish slavery or don’t. And the movie is just that in its big third act moments, but for the first two acts of the film, I couldn’t help feeling like a dog in a room of humans, grasping basic instincts but confused by the other-worldly language buzzing by. I expect history professors and political science majors will aptly and enthusiastically drool over all of it.
But when Ulysses S. Grant (Mad Men’s Jared Harris) steps in and out of the picture, I know the name, but know not about much else. When a man named Bilbo (Boston Legal’s James Spader) is the frequent comic relief—though he’s pretty much Alan Shore—I can’t help but think about Frodo and the Shire, because that’s what that name means to me.
When Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, in a performance as enjoyable as Day-Lewis’s) takes a political document and folds it to bring home, I understand that this is probably an Easter egg of a historical anecdote—but I don’t know it. That’s my fault. This movie is for the buffs of American politics.
Superior to the meandering Iron Lady from last year, the film is mostly about the politics. Where the Streep film spent too much time on the deterioration of a fascinating woman, forgetting what made her fascinating, this Day-Lewis film is the opposite. Perhaps it’s because we know less of the day-to-day details of Lincoln’s personal life, but the film is better for it, inventing what it needs to, and staying tremendously accurate to the history and the thrilling politics.
It works best as a nice study of Lincoln the politician, more than Lincoln the man, and as a stand-alone moment of historical documentation. The 20th century held some of the cruelest years for African-Americans—Lincoln’s triumph was just a step, albeit a triumphant one. Spielberg’s movie doesn’t try to be anything more than a biopic of Lincoln’s final fight in office, and that’s fine.