The mesmerising quality of Day-Lewis's Abraham Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s "Lincoln" reviewed.

No one who watches American movies regularly is ever likely to bemoan a lack of father/son stories. At times it can seem that the entire industry is run by studio executives greenlighting films about men who are torn, as they are, between their careers and their sons’ little league games. The nadir of this psychotherapy-as-cinema sub-genre was surely Field of Dreams, the 1989 Y-chromosome weepie starring Kevin Costner as a farmer who got to play baseball with the ghost of the father he had taken for granted. As with many of the malignant elements in American cinema – the reverence towards opening weekend takings, the supremacy of the blockbuster, the career of Michael Bay – it would be possible to blame this whole voyage-round-my-father cinematic movement on Steven Spielberg.

Possible but also simplistic. Spielberg may not be a profound artist but he is a painstaking one, and his ongoing exploration of the father- son dynamic defines him as much as any of his staggering visual coups. (Unlike his imitators, he doesn’t exclude women from the equation: for all that it is motivated by the absence of the father, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial features one of the most sympathetic portraits of motherhood in all cinema.) But from Spielberg’s modest debut, Duel (a one-character, 90-minute thriller made for TV in 1971 and released theatrically), to his latest film, Lincoln (nearly twice the length, with around 150 speaking parts), the concept of the father has been at the core of his vision of the world.

No journalistic spadework is required to join up the dots to the director’s own life. “I missed my dad a lot growing up, even though we were together as a family,” he said recently. “My dad was really a workaholic. And he was always working.” Rarely can a filmmaking career have been devoted so singlemindedly to addressing such a schism. Fathers in Spielberg are in prison (The Sugarland Express), away at sea (Jaws) or estranged physically (E.T.) and emotionally (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade); they are fiscally vulnerable (Catch Me If You Can); their obsessions can jeopardise the family (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Munich). Movies such as Empire of the Sun, Hook, Saving Private Ryan and A.I. – Artificial Intelligence are as littered with lost sons as any orphanage, so it can only have been a matter of time before Spielberg alighted on a reliable father like Abraham Lincoln to assuage the traumas of his own past.

Whether the making of Lincoln helps Spielberg adequately to process the pain of not having his father in the bleachers is a matter for him and his therapist. But there must have been a likelihood that Lincoln would fulfil the same function for the subject of slavery that Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust: that is, to act as a minor balm to a history of deep and resonant suffering. “Think that’s about the Holocaust?” Stanley Kubrick once asked witheringly of Spielberg’s Oscarwinning movie. “That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.”

Lincoln does provide a measure of comfort but it also contains a larger share of complexities than we have been accustomed to finding in late-period Spielberg. For example, it could be viewed superficially as inspirational in the modern context of President Obama’s tribulations at home: with the House of Representatives bitterly divided, what could be more uplifting than the spectacle of opposing sides united to vanquish a gross injustice by passing the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery? On the other hand, the stringpulling, mischief-making and horse-trading entered into by Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), his secretary of state William Seward (David Straithairn), and their advocates – notably a trio of wily Republican vote-snaggers (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader) – is hardly designed to have audiences saluting the US flag. At its funniest, Lincoln suggests a backstage political caper – The Thick of It with stovepipe hats and tumbleweed sideburns.

Advance enthusiasm had suggested that the movie would be the director’s chef d’oeuvre. Well, it’s certainly someone’s but it is surely the screenwriter, Tony Kushner (the playwright best known for his Pulitzer-winning Angels in America), who has brought the film its unique structural and linguistic strengths. A single-film biopic of Abraham Lincoln would have been foolhardy, so Kushner has created a fine-grained procedural drama, a portrait of the man through the prism of the battle in which his mettle was tested most fiercely – the sort of speculative reconstruction made bankable in recent years by the screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon).

The speculative element has been reduced considerably by Kushner’s fidelity to one section of the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Kushner concentrates on the first four months of 1865, the last of the five years examined in depth by Goodwin, in which Lincoln invested all his energies in getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed as the civil war spluttered on.

Political nerds will experience a wave of delight as they realise that the film is going to scrutinise forensically the process by which Democrat opinion was turned and each individual vote secured. In this Lincoln most resembles Milk, Gus Van Sant’s 2008 movie about the election of America’s first openly gay male politician, Harvey Milk. Viewers hoping for a disco-era camp-a-thon might have been flummoxed by that film’s preoccupation with issues such as voting boundaries and campaign strategies. Similarly, Kushner’s screenplay is a tapestry arrived at one apparently inconsequential stitch at a time.

The only other notable film about the sixteenth president – here I must disappoint regretfully any admirers of last year’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – is John Ford’s 1939 Young Mr Lincoln. Like Spielberg and Kushner’s film, Young Mr Lincoln followed a foreshortened narrative: it concentrated on its subject’s early years and found in his time as a lawyer some harbingers of triumphs to come.

There is a surprising continuity between Henry Fonda’s alert and witty performance in Ford’s film, and Daniel Day-Lewis’s stately turn in Lincoln. For all their differences in methodology, there’s a baked-in wisdom and joyfulness that runs through both actors’ portrayals. Playing the younger man, Fonda was bound to have the edge in spryness, but Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is an intellectually ravenous figure who savours ideas, words and stories (especially his own). This is a performance of ruminative stillness but one that reveals the mental sparks flying even in moments of repose. He’s playing a man of just 56 years old (Day-Lewis himself is only a year younger) and he advances slowly, majestically rather than falteringly, as though he is thinking through the ramifications not only of each political move but of putting one foot in front of the other. It’s all the more shocking, then, when he raises his voice, or lashes out at his son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whom he has forbidden from enlisting. The slap represents a rare moment of Lincoln losing control, of reaching for a weapon other than rhetoric or anecdote, but it also serves to remind us of the lightning reflexes beneath the meditative calm.

Lincoln begins with an intimately gruelling scene of civil war combat: punches are thrown, bayonets jabbed, a man is drowned in a muddy puddle. It’s a remake in miniature of the Omaha Beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan, which subverted for many viewers what the experience of a Spielberg movie could be. Thereafter, the fury and frenzy of Lincoln is entirely verbal. In a film that values the back-room mechanics of politics as much as the progress that results, it’s necessary to have actors who know the nutritional value of a hearty script.

Among a fine supporting cast, Tommy Lee Jones gives the most passionate performance of his career as Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican whose personal fervour for the abolitionist cause proves inflammatory to his opponents. Only Sally Field, as the first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, does an inadequate job: even Mary’s abrasive stand-off with Stevens at a dinner party can’t stop this actor drawing from her well of self-adoring tomboy toughness.

It seems almost by-the-by to praise Day-Lewis, so accustomed have we become to his landmark status among modern screen acting, but he is genuinely mesmerising, not least in his concentration and his delivery: he brings a lolling looseness to his lines so they sound like they’ve only just occurred to him. A scene depicting Lincoln meeting wounded soldiers in hospital is rendered moving by Day-Lewis’s unforced affability (“Tell me your names as I go past – I like to know who I’m talking to,” he says in a warming burr). His charisma is quietly dazzling; he makes you understand why the soldiers would get a kick simply from standing in his shadow.

Day-Lewis, Spielberg and Kushner conspire together in an overhaul of Lincoln as icon, breaking apart what we know of the man and building him up again over the course of the movie. In that nocturnal battlefield scene near the start, Lincoln sits with his back to us in semi-darkness as a group of soldiers gather round to meet him. Kushner had the tremendous idea of dismantling Lincoln’s speeches so that we never hear him deliver any of them (he is seen only once, briefly, at the podium). Instead, one of the adoring soldiers recites part of the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln, who listens humbly.

Just as Jane Campion put some of Keats’s poetry in the mouths of children in Bright Star, Kushner and Spielberg remake the familiar. The cinematography by Spielberg’s regular collaborator, Janusz Kaminski, has a magisterial grandeur – all architectural greys and steely blues burnished with pockets of warmth – but the scenes themselves can be oddly informal, whether it’s Lincoln describing a dream to Mary or lying on the floor in his stockinged feet.

In its treatment of slavery, Lincoln improves immeasurably on Spielberg’s last brush with the subject – the 1997 courtroom drama Amistad, an African-American story compromised unnecessarily for white audiences. Black characters don’t make much of a showing in Lincoln but their presence resonates beyond individual scenes. I particularly liked Lincoln’s fleeting conversation with Mary’s maid (Gloria Reuben) concerning his feelings towards her race. He gives an apologetic half-smile and admits: “I don’t know you. I assume I’ll get used to you.”

The high-water mark in the treatment of slavery in mainstream cinema has to be Ang Lee’s 1998 Ride with the Devil: what appears to be a white man’s story is eclipsed in its final moments by the quest of a black slave (Jeffrey Wright) to find the family from whom he had been separated. That was poetic justice expressed in film language, as a marginalised character gained control of the narrative. Lincoln doesn’t have anything quite so radical but it comes a close second with a point-of-view shot that puts the camera behind African-American eyes and makes the president’s butler the last person in the movie to see him alive.

Lincoln is released on 25 January

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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