When is a biopic not a biopic?
When it’s Steven Spielberg’s masterly, high-minded recreation of Abraham Lincoln’s long-shot battle to get the 13th amendment outlawing slavery through a hostile Congress.
Unlike earlier myth-making takes on America’s most beloved president, Spielberg and his prestige screenwriter Tony Kushner recreate Lincoln as a man juggling morality, chicanery, war-waging and family troubles rather than as a monument-in-waiting.
The outcome is a tense legislative drama, an immersion in history made in cramped, smoke-filled rooms, as Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) cobbles together an unruly coalition in a race that will change the face of America.
Tight concentration on the desperate dash in January 1865 to bribe Democrats with plum jobs and Republicans with peace talks, makes for a taut, suspenseful story.
It’s The West Wing in wing-collars, culminating in a nail-biting day of reckoning.
However, lovers of Spielberg’s hallmark big-budget, big-heart, action-saturated films should note that the modestly staged and unabashedly talky Lincoln feels like a new chapter.
Creatively it’s a three-way split, where Kushner’s chewy oratory-packed screenplay and Day Lewis’ mesmerisingly conflicted Lincoln are just as key as Spielberg’s abilty to marshal the elements.
In this unassuming, fiercely focused film (garbed in authentic gas-lit browns by DoP Janusz Kaminski) the speeches paint the pictures.
Oratory becomes the film’s action, providing blazing set-pieces as honest Abe unpacks the dubious legality of the Emancipation Proclamation, or Tommy Lee Jones’ grandstanding abolitionist tongue-lashes Congress.
Whenever the film seems too engrossed in its rhetoric, Sally Field’s defiant, damaged wife or James Spader’s deliciously cynical chief-vote-chaser emit useful emotional and comic jolts.
You can’t fault a single performance, from David Strathairn’s vulpine secretary of state down to Walton Goggins' wavering Congressional cameo.
Granted, there’s a surfeit of speechifying all round, and the careful balance between sentiment and reality ultimately dips into mournful hero-worship.
Nonetheless, a cinematic history lesson has rarely seemed so personal, yet so momentous