Don't rushSteven Spielberg’s critically venerated biopic of America’s beloved top hat wearing president, which arrives gift-wrapped in a thick padding of ‘for your consideration’ packaging, says more about the veteran director’s approach from what it doesn’t depict.

I kept waiting for a single moment that never arrived, that distinctively Spielbergian scene of full dairy flair that comes every time he makes a historical and or/ political film, of which Lincoln — set during the American Civil War, when Honest Abe set about freeing the slaves — is both.

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There were the obscenely parochial bookend sequences in Saving Private Ryan (1998). The wreath-laying epilogue in Schindler’s List (1993). The way the horse cranes its head, against a crimson sunset in War Horse (2011). The glazed image of Djimon Hounsou in front of a sapphire-tinted starry sky in Amistad (1997). Spielberg’s record of historical recreations is well documented — which is to say, expect a dollop of cheese.

The closest we get in Lincoln is a warm fuzzy fade from the golden light of a candle to the impeccably well dressed man of the hour, but cheesy isn’t the right word. It’s a handsome transition that fits the tone and atmosphere of the film hand in glove. There’s also an opening scene in which four soldiers recite to Abe the Gettysburg address, and it plays a little too stagey, a little too contrived. But that distinctively Spielbergian moment never arrives.

His guiding hand can be felt throughout the film but this time there are no shortcuts; no sell-outs; no money shots. Lincoln is an admirably restrained and tightly contained film: insular, controlled and executed with precision. And yet…

A strong whiff of lethargy casts a wearying pall over the proceedings. A dream ensemble cast (including David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley and Tim Blake Nelson) fight hard against a strongly soporific atmosphere, as if the film itself has dunked valiums and face-planted onto a history book.

Abe must get the numbers to pass the 13 Amendment, as the civil war half-heartedly simmers somewhere in the background, illustrated by the occasional stroll alongside dead bodies. Much effort is expended in depicting the political machinations behind getting the bill through. We know the outcome, of course, so the film detours into illustrating bits of the process, Lincoln’s relationship with his wife (Sally Field) and his penchant for rambling stories that go nowhere. “Real” politics are relegated to the film’s peripheries.

One character grumbles “I don’t believe I can bear to listen to another one of your stories!” then storms off — and yet Lincoln insists that the old time anecdotes keep rolling on, Daniel Day Lewis enunciating them with the warm decay of an old man hazily recalling the achievements of yesteryear.

The ebb and flow of most politicians’ voices cause general audiences to instinctively tune out after a little while, lulled into a state of intellectual semi-consciousness. Bizarrely, thus it is so here, even in the hands of Spielberg, no stranger to spectacle. It is a great testament to Day Lewis’ skills as an actor — perhaps there is no greater — that  describing his performance using words such as “excellent” feels redundant, akin to observing that the films he stars in also have opening and closing credits.

Day Lewis can roar with the best of them, but his performance here is understated. It flows like a slow stream, with soft enunciation and a grandpa-like “seen it all before” temperament. It’s a scene-gobbling Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republication faction, who is granted a pass card to escape the plantation. His grunt, groan and take-no-prisoners chutzpah will remind audiences that sound, fury and well-timed zingers have always been synonymous with politics.

Spielberg’s guarded representation of Honest Abe highlights some problems with the biopic format, especially in terms of veracity, and especially in terms of how we can (or can’t) measure accuracy as the years roll by. He has an understandable reluctance to speculate on somebody nobody knows much about anymore, at least in a personal sense, and sadly the film also flubs historical facts it had no excuse to get wrong.

Lincoln is technically proficient, carefully directed and armed with a squadron of supporting actors who fight valiantly — and largely unsuccessfully — to get noticed through a thick, debilitating fog. It’s also drowsy and slumbersome, conservatively drawn and steadfastly middle of the road: the politics film that isn’t really about politics; the character film that reveals precious little character.

Lincoln’s Australian theatrical release date: February 7, 2013. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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