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


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The Independent Culture

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.