In Spielberg's hands, Lincoln's wordy debates make for an engrossing blockbuster

A little dry and overlong, Lincoln feels more like a sumptuous TV mini-series than a full-blown movie at times. Still, the movie deserves four stars out of five.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. Reuters / Walt Disney Pictures / 20th Century Fox
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Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook


The 16th president of America, the first from the newly formed Republican Party, has been portrayed on screen more than any other US leader. He remains an almost unanimously revered national hero for his rhetorical skill and progressive views, but mostly for his efforts to end the Civil War and abolish slavery. Nominated for 12 Oscars, Spielberg's classy biopic concentrates on the last few months in Abraham Lincoln's life, notably his crafty campaign to push through the 13th Amendment before the war ends, in case this allows his Washington rivals to wriggle out of their anti-slavery commitments.

Daniel Day-Lewis is not just an uncanny physical match for the lanky Lincoln, he also immerses himself in the role with a meticulously studied accent, posture and gait. He gives a mesmerising, magnetic performance, although he is almost upstaged by Sally Field as the president's mentally fragile wife Mary, and by Tommy Lee Jones as the Republican elder statesman Thaddeus Stevens. Considering the momentous events it depicts, Lincoln is surprisingly unshowy and understated. Spielberg reins in his usual weakness for spectacle and sentimentality, delivering instead a thoughtful chamber piece about the persuasive power of noble rhetoric, especially when backed by shameless bribery and horse-trading. Talk-heavy scenes inside grand mansion interiors, beautifully lit and framed like painterly tableaux, greatly outnumber the discreet handful of Civil War battle sequences.

A little dry and overlong, Lincoln feels more like a sumptuous TV mini-series than a full-blown movie at times. Despite an admirable abundance of nuanced historical detail, Tony Kushner's script barely hints at the president's ambivalent track record towards slaves and African-Americans. The limited screen time allotted to marginal black characters also feels stilted and tokenistic. All the same, to his credit, Spielberg manages to turn a talk-heavy ensemble drama about a series of wordy political debates into an engrossing, humane, intelligent blockbuster.