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

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism