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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis