Movie review: Lincoln

(M) ***

Director: Steven Spielberg.

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

THE word "ponderous" means "slow and awkward, especially because of great weight".

It may be the best way to described Spielberg's historical drama Lincoln - there are certainly few weightier and significant topics than slavery and equality, and there are certainly few world leaders held with as much reverence as old Honest Abe.

But there are also few topics that can be quite as slow and awkward as politics, and ultimately that is what this film is about.

If you want to be dismissive, Lincoln could be described as one man's quest to get people to vote a certain way, and in places, it is as dry and dull as that sounds. That the vote in question is the 13th amendment of the American constitution - the amendment to abolish slavery - is what elevates this movie and makes it closer to what Spielberg is hoping it will be - an important film about important people doing important things.

It's to Spielberg's credit that Lincoln is as funny, gripping and entertaining as it is, but the film still drags under its own weight, particularly in the early stages. At two and a half hours, it's an epic in every sense of the word, and occasionally you'll feel the minutes tick by.

With such a significant historical figure, this biopic wisely focuses on a small snapshot of Lincoln's life rather than trying to squeeze his whole life in to one film. We see his final months, during which he achieved his greatest accomplishments - the passing of the 13th amendment and the end of the American Civil War.

It's against this backdrop we meet a man willing to do what it takes to get what he wants. It may well be for the greater good, but he's not above abusing his power or engaging in some slightly dodgy politicking to get it. He's an orator, an inspirer, a dreamer and a realist, but he's also stubborn and cunning.

Beyond the presidency, we meet him as a father and a husband, haunted by the deaths of his children and the effect on his wife, Mary (Field). He's also an old man fond of telling old stories, and a humble, simple backwoods lawyer who made it big in Washington.

This rounded display of a clever, empathetic, yet beligerent Lincoln goes well beyond the usual caricature of the beard, the booming voice, and the stovepipe hat (or some kind of re-imagined vampire hunter, gods forbid).

But there's something about Day-Lewis's performance that makes it even more than that - something intangible that makes you believe this is Lincoln, on the screen. To call Day-Lewis's Lincoln great or impressive damns it with faint praise. His turn is remarkable, astounding, mesmerising and one of the best in the history of cinema. Day-Lewis disappears and what's left is Lincoln, all softly spoken, impeccably accented, wearied by time, and with an awkward gait. The extensive and talented supporting cast is also good, yet beside Day-Lewis' Lincoln, they seem like they are acting, while Day-Lewis is being. It is a performance that's low on fireworks, instead constructed with finesse.

Lincoln certainly gives you plenty to think about and you'll probably walk away fascinated by the man. Maybe Americans will get more out of it than Australian audiences. In fact, in some places, it feels like you need more than a passing interest in American history to get the full context of what's going on.

But once you settle in, this is an educational and enlightening epic. Yes, it can be ponderous, but for the most part, Lincoln is entertaining.

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