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Lincoln

Year: 2012
Studio: Dreamworks
Director: Steven Spielberg
Producer: Steven Spielberg/Kathleen Kennedy
Writer: Tony Kushner
Cast: Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gorden-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, Jared Harris, James Spader, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, David Oyelowo, Lukas Haas, Dane Dehaan

I remember a great line from the original series of The West Wing, where the Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) tells someone there are two things you don't want to see being made – laws and sausages.

It might be because it's simply not that interesting. When it's a bunch of old men sitting around talking and voting on things, the most drama Spielberg can extract from Lincoln (in that he mostly avoids imagery of the Civil War) is a few dramatic pauses.

Or it might be that even 150 years ago politicians weren't above buying, cajoling, bullying or strong-arming laws they wanted into being. In this case history and humanity are lucky because it ended the slave trade in the US, but the same thing put Hitler into supreme power in Germany and started World War II. At its heart, Lincoln is about powerful men jostling against the checks and balances in the system designed to protect us all against their passions or beliefs.

Without Steven Spielberg's name behind it, I don't think there would have been nearly as big an audience for a movie about the amendment. I think Spielberg is what's more than doubled its money. Even though he wouldn't know how to make a bad film if he tried, and even though Daniel Day Lewis does his usual immersive performance, with more skill in his big toe than most 'actors' possess in their entire careers, I felt smarter for having watched it, but not very entertained.

In fact I completely understand anyone who hates it for the dour colours and complete lack of movement and action (there's hardly even a raised voice – the 'blood's been spilt' line from the trailer is as emotional as it gets).

Lincoln has given the emancipation proclamation, now he needs to get the law passed through the US congress. The story demolishes any pretense about him being some sort of noble figure who rose above the political quagmire – through his Secretary of State (Strathairn), he enlists three buffoons whose job is to go around the country tracking down congressman they think they can turn and bribing them into voting for the amendment.

Alongside a whole lot of sitting around in candle-lit offices and chambers of political discourse talking and arguing, that's all that really happens. The old men with funny beards and hair all start to blend together, and after two and a half hours of it you know you're a better history scholar for it, but you're ready for it to end. The subplot about Lincoln's wife (Field) and her grief at the death of their sons years before served little purpose other than to humanise the story. Ironically I found Lewis' portrayal very opaque, giving me no real insight into the kind of man Lincoln was.

I'm also amazed it's been as popular as it was – I couldn't quite follow all the politicking going on and if I know Americans, most of them know even less about how their cumbersome political process works. What have so many moviegoers found so interesting (or have they)?

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