Last year, Steven Spielberg gave us two of the most unlikely ‘edge of your seat’ moments in cinema.
Not only did ‘War Horse’ make ploughing a field nail biting but he also gave us a surprisingly thrilling auction sequence in a village square in Devon between Peter Mullan and David Thewlis.
Spielberg’s latest movie ‘Lincoln’ is interested in horse trading of a different kind – the horse trading between American Presidents and Congress to pass crucial legislation.
It is no accident that ‘Lincoln’ has arrived in cinemas as President Obama begins a second term in the White House, after a difficult and bruising first term battle with Republicans in Congress.
Much has already been written about the divided nation presided over by America’s first black President and the one led by Honest Abe.
Spielberg’s very public support for Barack Obama, including a $1 million donation to his re-election campaign, has added further fuel to that debate.
But Spielberg and his Pulitzer Prize winning screenwriter Tony Kushner are mostly focused on the deals and compromises that all politicians, including low and high profile Congressmen, must strike in pursuit of their agenda and ambition.
Spielberg’s movie begins on a Civil War battlefield with Federal and Confederate troops engaged in bitter, bloody hand to hand combat.
However this is a rare glimpse of the harsh realities of war.
Spielberg instead concentrates on the battle Abraham Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), his Secretary of State William H Seward (David Strathairn) and Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) waged with senior Democrats in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th amendment of the Constitution – the amendment that abolished slavery.
The Republicans use everything at their disposal to woo enough Democratic Congressmen to give them the two thirds majority they need to pass the amendment.
With some of the Democrats due to vacate their seats following a crushing electoral loss, Lincoln and Seward believe they can be enticed to back the amendment with the promise of plum Federal jobs.
And so they turn to three negotiators (played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes) to use every tactic in the book to secure the necessary support.
President Lincoln must also strike bargains within his own party, with one of the GOP’s founders Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) insisting that in return for his support Lincoln must negotiate with the Confederate States’ leaders to avoid a fourth year of Civil War.
Lincoln relents, keeping the negotiations involving General Ulysses S Grant (Jared Harris) secret from some his colleagues amid fears that if they are exposed they could derail efforts to pass the amendment
The President also has domestic battles to contend with, as he comes to terms with the loss of one son, Willie, the impact on his grieving wife, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) and an uneasy relationship with another son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who wants to abandon Harvard law school to enlist in the war.
With such an accomplished cast at his disposal, you expect Spielberg’s drama to have plenty of scene chewing dialogue.
However ‘Lincoln’ turns out to be a very flat and disappointing affair.
Day-Lewis turns in a worthy but unusually restrained performance as Lincoln (technically flawless but lacking the intensity of Christy Brown, Gerry Conlon or Daniel Plainview).
The great actor and his fellow cast members appear to be straitjacketed by Kushner’s rather plodding dialogue and the pedestrian pace of Spielberg’s movie.
You keep waiting for a big speech or a flash of emotion but it simply fails to turn up.
Instead, you get rather boring anecdotes from Lincoln and pious exchanges from a variety of characters about the deals that need to be struck in Congress.
Even cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s work seems a little dull and watery.
While Day-Lewis is the clear favourite to nab a third Best Actor Oscar, the star of the show is actually Tommy Lee Jones who has deservedly been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the gruff, Democrat baiting, Thaddeus Stevens.
Stevens is committed to equal rights for people of all races but he is also a smart Congressional operator. A sequence where Jones (a former College roommate of Al Gore’s) has to restrain himself on the floor of the House while the Democrats try to goad him into expressing his real views is a very intelligent piece of acting.
There are decent turns too from Jared Harris as General Grant and James Spader who provides some welcome comic relief as one of Seward’s horse traders, William Bilbo.
But these are brief flashes in an otherwise laboured movie.
Spielberg seems unusually tame in the director’s chair – there is little of the visual flair that has dazzled us over the decades in movies ranging from ‘ET’, ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘War of the Worlds’ to ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or even ‘War Horse’.
But the real problem is Kushner’s screenplay. It’s about as thrilling and inspiring as reading actual legislation.
On paper, ‘Lincoln’ should be a thoroughbred but in reality, it has the pace of a tired old donkey.