Review: Lincoln

Presidents are at once known by all and known by none. Their likenesses are recognized the world over, and their actions are scrutinized on a daily basis. At the end of their respective tenures, they are remembered by their actions, their public demeanors and the occasional moments of off the cuff frankness. Each man has brought something entirely original to the office of commander in chief, but despite all the excessive analysis, we as a people cannot claim to know our presidents completely. Greatest among those under the microscope is our 16th president, whose struggles have been recorded and retold literally thousands of times over. Abraham Lincoln may very well be the most studied President of the United States, so what use is a film like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, when we are likely to have heard these stories of his hard fought successes countless times before? As it turns out, Spielberg’s account of Lincoln’s most intense political battle shows us just how slippery and tooth and nail our political process can be in ways that literature never can, anchored by what is perhaps the director’s strongest ensemble work to date and an utterly remarkable Daniel Day-Lewis as the weathered leader at its core.

As has been apparent throughout history, the greatest figures have been defined by their actions and Abraham Lincoln is a prime cut specimen. Also in evidence is that the best film biopics are not broad tales of an individual’s life from the cradle to the grave, but rather pinpoint in on a specific time and place that come to best define the subject in question. In the case of Spielberg’s stately Lincoln, the focus lies in the emancipator’s greatest accomplishment, only four months prior to his untimely death by assassination. Caught in the crosshairs of a dwindling Civil War and the promises of peace, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) forges forward to accomplish the death of slavery with the passage of the 13th Amendment. However, without the two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives, the Republicans need to turn to moderate or wavering Democrats in order for the bill to pass. Opposition is beset upon Lincoln from all sides, from his public squabbles with conservative Republicans headed by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), to his own cabinet members, urging him to end the costly war with all haste. Finally, Lincoln is confronted by his own wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), beset by deep grief over their middle son Willie’s passing, and his elder son Robert’s rebellious desire to fight in the war. Only in his youngest son, Todd, does Lincoln find solace. In truth, never before on screen has the true weight of a presidency been conveyed so effectively, and to think all of this conflict within one man, both public and private, took place within a single month.

Lincoln is Steven Spielberg’s second collaboration with screenwriter and playwright Tony Kushner (their previous effort is the incredible and underrated Munich), and what could have made for an extensive and dull procedural look into this country’s political process turns into something closer to a political thriller. Much of this is due to Kushner’s lushly written scenes and overall structure, which perfectly lay out the rising stakes beset upon the President while also conveying his deep personal battles as well. Interestingly enough, however, despite the fate of a nation in the balance, there is a surprising wealth of humor to be found in Lincoln. Indeed the film somehow finds itself to be Spielberg’s funniest in a decade. Lincoln may been Spielberg’s talkiest film to date, but it is a credit to his actors that the film carries effortlessly from scene to scene and what an ensemble to behold. Front and center without a shadow of a doubt is Daniel Day-Lewis, whose Lincoln stands shoulder to shoulder with the actor’s other titanic performances. Day-Lewis succeeds yet again in complete immersion and presenting us with a man who is yes, wise, noble, and witty but also a deeply flawed husband and father. It may very well be the actor’s most complete performance to date. Of course, to talk about Lincoln is to talk about those around him, and every single actor in this film is at the very prime and that is saying something considering the company. From Sally Field’s depth of sorrow, David Strathairn’s exasperated Secretary of State, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s neglected son, James Spader’s bumbling lobbyist, and especially Tommy Lee Jones’ humorously passionate senator, each actor contributes something uniquely memorable to this film.

What is most impressive about Lincoln in Spielberg’s hands is just how much restraint he shows, considering the weighty subject matter.  The film occasionally indulges, as in its protracted ending portraying the President’s death, but such overtly emotional moments are rare, and displayed only when vital. The element that shines the most is Janusz Kaminski’s exemplary photography, defined by the exquisite lighting setups and less by camera movement. The film’s sole Civil War battle for instance, displays none of the handheld madness on display in Saving Private Ryan and instead favors a distant, telephoto lensed approach. There is still much grit and grime present, but the removed aesthetic says something about the elected officials in Washington, far away from the agony and death. The period elements here are quite elegant as well, from Rick Carter’s production design on location in Richmond, VA, to the costumes and subtle makeup. Even the most quintessentially Spielbergian element, a typically strong John Williams score, is held back at moments where one might expect swells of brass and strings.

Lincoln, as with Munich, represents some of Spielberg’s most mature and reflective filmmaking to date. In addition to being a deeply comprehensive and comprehensible look into our political system, the film does not shy away from the more questionable tactics employed in order to pass the critical bill. As Thaddeus Stevens himself put it, “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” Spielberg makes it abundantly clear that Lincoln truly put his entire reputation on the line for the sake of the amendment. Time and again he endured intense criticism and pressure from every angle, yet held steadfast to his convictions, knowing full well the consequences if things went awry. Too often in his films does Spielberg distinguish too easily the right from the wrong, and though that separation is present here, the road towards ultimate good is not easily traveled. These morally gray areas that Lincoln explores are ultimately what make it such a thematically rich experience. Perhaps Lincoln, like its subject’s fondness for storytelling, will be counted as one of the many retellings of the same story told for 150 years. However, it is the storyteller that matters most, and in the assuredly masterful hands of the nation’s most popular cinematic voice, this tale may be the most retold, and rightfully so.


~ by romancinema on November 17, 2012.

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