Wednesday, February 05, 2014


We watched Spielberg's Lincoln last night. I fast-forwarded through the opening battle scene, thinking I was going to be subjected to another opening like that in Saving Private Ryan. In fact, the battle scene is relatively short, and is the only one in the whole movie. Spielberg eschews physical battle in favour of battles of words, and what magnificent ones they are. A wide range of characters orate and mock and insult within the House of Representatives, and use a quality of language seldom heard in movies these days. (Surprisingly there are a few four-letter words scattered about, which seem out of place in this world of men who speak top quality English.)

This is an epic story without the casts of thousands (even though to begin with it seems we're inundated with new politicians in every scene), or the huge set-pieces. It focuses for more on real people speaking real thoughts, expressing deep emotions and seen in many small-scale scenes.

The cast is full of well-known faces, but Daniel Day Lewis trumps them all with a performance that's magnificent in its understatement. Only occasionally does he get to shout, or orate, and it's all the more impressive for it. He also gets all the best lines, with some wonderful scenes in which he tells stories of considerable humour and wit. Sally Field turns out a wonderful performance too as his wife, a woman whose turmoil and grief isn't easily switched off, and who is as capable as her husband of speaking forthrightly. In fact, the women in the cast, though they're few, have excellently written roles, and aren't merely treated as adjuncts to the vocal men.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Tommy Lee Jones, as always, but his character is rich in verbosity and he revels in the chance to speak lines that are short and succinct, as he's had to do in many of his better-known movies. Picking out anyone else in the cast is difficult; everyone makes a top-notch contribution, no matter how big or small his or her role.

It's interesting to see how things have changed in the White House, or its 19th century equivalent. Plenty of staff, but none of that checking at every door as to who is who, and security creeping around everywhere, and people struggling to treat other people as ordinary human beings. Lincoln's young son Tad (who is the one we see when we hear that Lincoln has been shot - offstage, as it were) breezes around the house, in and out of offices, without so much as a flicker of concern from anyone. The servants are friends, and the staff are known by name and touched on the shoulder by Lincoln in an affectionate manner. Compare this to the controlled chaos of the White House in The West Wing series...

I didn't think I'd enjoy Lincoln, and it does take a while to get to grips with the debates and arguments that are going on, but this film has a clever and thoughtful script (by Tony Kushner, the third of three scriptwriters to work on the film), and has been directed impeccably by Spielberg.

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