Lincoln at the Dominion

I knew little about Abraham Lincoln's story except for the obvious highlights, and I didn't know too much about the cinema we were going to either. The Dominion wears its 75 years proudly, and with nothing to sit on but soft leather sofas, and free tubes of Pringles on offer, I'm not sure how often we'll visit other cinemas in the city from now on.

Even more lavish is the treatment that Steven Spielberg gives Abraham Lincoln in telling the story of how slavery was broken in America. The president is often bathed in light, a living stain-glass saint. Daniel Day-Lewis is thoughtful, careful, political: it's a yet another inhabiting, uninhibited performance. He is creaking, we know his doom, and there's something almost beautiful about this. He asks the proud question which only a humble leader like him could ask: was he made for this time, or did it make him? Hagiography is narrowly avoided by both actor and director (though the score almost ruins this), which is what this film suggests the man himself would want. Just as you begin to tire of yet another impromptu presidential speech or story, one of the minor characters expresses the same thought.

The spoken word is the main driver of plot, recalling The West Wing at its finest and fastest. Though it is set in the midst of civil war, battle scenes are brief. This amplifies their impact, and keeps us close to Lincoln's own experience of the conflict. The story is shown as a battle for America’s soul, but happily it avoids the patriotic bombast of pre-Superbowl anthems. The world’s self-proclaimed greatest nation was formed in a furious cauldron and there is little sense of a manifest destiny here, however famous the outcome.

Politics has been described as the art of the possible, and Lincoln explores how that clay-footed pragmatism was made to dance to a dream-like vision of liberty. Its length (two and a half hours) allows the story to meander and even seem stuck at times, and for there to be characters with light and shade, changing moods, and developing ideas. It is honest about the mixed motivations involved, and even offers us a glimpse into the heart of a sincere racist. Other villains are more two-dimensional but each central character has depth that goes beyond their wrinkles. Unusually for a major film (and western politics at present), the young are mostly in the background. Sally Field as a wounded animal of a First Lady, and the pugnaciously righteous Tommy Lee Jones are both fascinating in their own right but also serve as contrasts to Lincoln, the heroic centrepiece of a great story that has been intelligently told.