American History X: Spielberg Edition

Art & Lit Screen

Stephen Spielberg is comfortable with historical epics. From the sombre brilliance of Schindler’s List to the explosive power of Saving Private Ryan, his is the realm of the majestic. Lincoln, his latest film, fits this mould perfectly: it’s a sweeping account of the 16th president of the USA’s fight to abolish slavery during the American Civil War, and it’s 100% Spielberg. True, it’s as sentimental and God-bless-America patriotic as it gets, but its subject matter is about as deserving of such qualities as they come, and its exposition is pretty much flawless. A biopic of the most universally loved US president and his fight to amend the constitution is never going to be edgy, and it isn’t going to be the sort of movie you watch on a night in with your friends, but in Spielberg’s hands at least, it is going to be epic.

Rather than giving us Abe’s life story, the film focuses on a specific crisis at the end of the American Civil war in which the president, played predictably well by Daniel Day-Lewis, must decide between ending the massive slaughter of the conflict or pushing through the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. Lincoln and his allies, including passionately anti-slavery Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, fight tooth and nail to secure the necessary votes; their opponents the Democrats fiercely resist in a series of fiery debate scenes. Meanwhile the president’s wife and son (Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) kick off and his hired hands run around bribing senators, and all in a gorgeous medley of cigar smoke and gentle woodwind music. Tony Kushner’s script is perfect and Day-Lewis, Jones and co powerfully communicate the interests and emotions tied up in this crucial moment in American history. A movie about politicians attempting to pass a law is never going to be a non-stop thrill ride, but here is proof that it can keep you thoroughly engaged for a good two and a half hours, which is no mean feat. As you might expect, the most moving parts of the film are those where its central subject, the enslavement of human beings in a civilised country, is brought to the fore. Lincoln has drawn some criticism, and deservedly, for improving the title character’s attitude to race somewhat above its disappointing reality, but here are loads of moments where, despite its sentimentality, the depiction of people fighting hard to do something so morally important really does pull the heart strings.

Despite, or because of this, the film does run the risk of seeming a little wet; the ubiquitous American flag the constant slow motion zoom-ins on Day-Lewis’ face can get a bit much. As for the lead actor himself, you’ve got to face it: his best roles – the ones which have made him one of the world’s most renowned actors – are the ones where he plays nutters. And though he’s completely consummate as the reedy, twinkly-eyed president, the character never affords him the ability to tear down the house with the jaw-dropping power of Bill Cutting in Gangs of New York or Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Obviously, if he were to portray the president as a swivel-eyed psycho he wouldn’t be portraying the president at all, and his Lincoln is as impressive as you’d expect, but the role never allows him to truly shine. If anything, Tommy Lee Jones gives a better performance as passionate orator Stevens, eviscerating the pro-slavery Democrats with devastating wit while the president is back at the White House, presumably doing paperwork.

These drawbacks aren’t really drawbacks though. Lincoln ambitiously tackles a hugely serious subject and treats it with measure and restraint throughout. The performances are faultless, the script is excellent, and the top hats are awe-inspiring. Anyone who prefers their mid-Victorian slavery-based dramas with a bit of an edge, however, might want to swap Spielberg for Tarantino.