Film review: Lincoln - 'We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are lit beautifully

 

The monumental title of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln may suggest that it's a definitive biopic, but if you're after a comprehensive account of Honest Abe's ascent from prairie lawyer to American president, you'd be better off watching last year's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and fast-forwarding through all the bits with blood-sucking demons in them.

Lincoln, in contrast, is an engaging, tightly focused political drama. It's set almost entirely in Washington DC's parlours and debating chambers in the weeks preceding the House of Representatives' vote on the 13th amendment. The President (Daniel Day-Lewis) needs to persuade 20-odd Democrats to say "aye" to the abolishing of slavery, so his sceptical but loyal Secretary of State (David Strathairn) sends a trio of rollicking hucksters (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) to offer juicy jobs to anyone who seems biddable. Meanwhile, Lincoln himself is trying to talk his son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) out of enlisting in the army, mainly to placate his anxious wife (Sally Field). It's like a long episode of The West Wing, except with top hats and facial hair.

Spielberg can't resist bathing his characters in heavenly white light and swaddling their dialogue in John Williams melodies, but Lincoln is still less reverential than you might fear. It's also the most verbal of Spielberg's films. Its depiction of the Civil War is confined to a minute's brawling in a muddy stream, whereas the scenes of bearded men negotiating in cigar-smoky rooms go on and on. Not that that's a bad thing. Tony Kushner's dialogue sparkles with colourful 19th-century slang (it's time for "shindy" and "flubdub" to come back into fashion), and he doesn't shy away from disquisitions on the legality of Lincoln's tactics, thus boggling our minds with the concept of a president who would care about the legality of anything.

The Democrats are reduced to a huddle of scowling nobodies, so when Tommy Lee Jones's Thaddeus Stevens is in the House of Representatives, throwing insults like Zeus threw thunderbolts, his opponents don't stand a chance. As for the President, he is never at a loss for words, never on the losing side of an argument, never far from a folksy, front-porch anecdote, and never in doubt about his own righteousness and wisdom. Spielberg and Kushner may portray him as a troubled family man and a pragmatic political operator, but his rhetorical powers are so prodigious that he's never quite a human being.

Staying on the subject of American politics, the former governor of California has his first starring role in 10 years this week, but when you watch Arnold Schwarzenegger's comeback vehicle you'd think no time had passed at all. The Last Stand is just the kind of barrel-scraping nonsense he was peddling shortly before he took that decade-long sabbatical. It's essentially a modern-day western. Arnie is miscast as an Arizona sheriff who has to stop an escaped drugs baron (Eduardo Noriega) racing through his small town in a souped-up Corvette. But before we get to the climactic shoot-out, we have to wait what feels like hours while Schwarzenegger tries to – gulp – act.

When the action does eventually get into gear, it lurches queasily from gruesome, painful violence to knockabout, cartoon violence. One minute a beloved character is bleeding to death; the next , Johnny Knoxville is clowning around in a dressing gown. If this farrago is the best that Schwarzenegger is being offered these days, he might as well go back into politics.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk