There are really three films struggling silently among themselves for precedence inside Steven Spielberg's true-life drama about President Abraham Lincoln's struggle to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in 1865; each of them is masterminded by one of the three key creative contributors to Lincoln. One is the film Mr. Spielberg designed and directed in his "prestige" mode: an impeccably made but somewhat lifeless historical pageant, with name actors impersonating real-life figures, carefully but distantly presented. As usually when the director handles this sort of "lofty" project, it comes off as an emasculated Spielberg film, mostly shorn of his bravura visual storytelling, constrained by the heftiness of the "serious" subject matter, in a way his purely fictional narratives seldom do.
Another is the film that playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner has written: a smartly structured but ultimately highly theatrical succession of Socratic dialogues on the form and substance of politics, a chamber piece set mostly in offices and enclosed spaces. Mr. Kushner's film unfolds in a series of dramatic tableaux that underline the nature of politics as a highly ritualized form of theatre, where everything is presented for the purpose of an audience; essentially a chamber piece with little action, which it makes it an unusual fit for a director who has seldom attempted this sort of historical piece. Finally, there is the film Daniel Day-Lewis stars in as President Lincoln, beyond a simple impersonation of a historical figure and into an actual flesh-and-blood human being, completely disappearing inside it in the process. It's a role that would give any actor leeway to showboat, except Mr. Day-Lewis goes the exact opposite way, opting for subdued discretion instead, while we can't look at most of the all-star cast without seeing the actors rather than the characters, no matter how good they are in their roles.
What comes out of the combination of these three films is a consummately professional but strangely bloodless object that, for all its great moments and Mr. Day-Lewis' striking performance, never rises above the level of an earnest and important history and politics lesson (and one that resonates intriguingly with modern American politics).
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Tony Kushner, partly based on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski (colour, Panavision widescreen)
Music: John Williams
Designer: Rick Carter
Costumes: Joanna Johnston
Editor: Michael Kahn
Producers: Mr. Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy (Twentieth Century-Fox, Dreamworks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Amblin Entertainment and the Kennedy/Marshall Company in association with Participant Media and Dune Entertainment)
USA/India, 2012, 150 minutes
Screened: distributor private screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), December 20th 2012