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Film Review: Lincoln

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Steven Spielberg's long awaited biopic of 'honest' Abe Lincoln has been in the pipeline for over a decade now, with Liam Neeson set to take on the role before an unlikely turn of events saw him became one of Hollywood's most bankable action stars. Neeson's loss is Oscar-hoarder Daniel Day-Lewis' gain, and it will be of no surprise to anyone that he is absolutely brilliant. Spielberg takes the bold decision to abandon the conventional biopic formula, instead concentrating on a brief snapshot of the 16th President of the United States of America's life. Lincoln focuses solely on the months from January 1865 until his death, in which Lincoln faced a battle to secure his 13th Amendment; the abolition of slavery, and in turn, his legacy.

Spielberg has stated that the film is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's extraordinary Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the same book that takes pride of place on the shelves of Barack Obama's Oval Office. Although the narrative of Spielberg's two and-a-half hour movie takes place over the course of one chapter of Goodwin's book, the depth of characterisation and sense of authenticity are hugely indebted to it. Daniel Day-Lewis' extraordinary performance captures every aspect of Lincoln's complex character: the avuncular raconteur, loved by all he met; the single-minded politician, unafraid to manipulate and twist the rules; and the bereaved father, dogged by depression. It is also testament to Day-Lewis that his portrayal of the most iconic and recognisable President is his least caricatured to date. His Lincoln is a far cry from the tour de force performances as Daniel Plainview and Christy Brown that brought him Oscar glory. It is subtle, transformative and alluring; at times, you forget you are watching someone acting and feel as comforted by his rambling stories as the frightened young soldiers on screen.

Spielberg's achievement in directing is not overshadowed by the virtuosity of his leading man. The director's preternatural versatility is often overlooked, and Lincoln is perhaps his most intelligent piece of filmmaking to date. It is a master class in restraint, pacing and tone, painting a rich cinematic portrait of a true American hero that is neither jingoistic, sentimental or sensationalist- all things that the great director has been accused of in the past. Those expecting epic Civil War battle scenes in the vein of Saving Private Ryan, will be disappointed. The only battle depicted in this film is a cerebral one between Lincoln and his Democrat opponents, his own party's 'radical' abolitionists, and the explosive mood swings of his bipolar wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Beneath the pedestal of Daniel Day-Lewis, the superbly assembled supporting cast includes terrific turns from Tommy Lee Jones as fervent abolitionist and Congressional leader Thaddeus Stephens, and Sally Field as the volatile First Lady struggling with mental illness. David Strathairn is also brilliant as Lincoln's Secretary of State and former Presidential rival, William Seward- a role that is obviously well studied and researched. However, it is Tony Kushner's screenplay that is the backbone of Spielberg's masterpiece. His script brilliantly captures the theatre of the House of Representatives, with the biting exchanges of rhetoric lying somewhere between Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing and the Coen brothers' True Grit.  The film looks beautiful too, with long-time Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski's use of shadows ominously conveying the bleak atmosphere of a nation consumed by war.

Lincoln is a brilliantly crafted character study of one of the world's most fascinating political figures, with a career best performance from the greatest actor of his generation. It's an utterly engaging, intelligent and well-told history lesson from one of the world's finest storytellers.

★★★★★