- on Saturday, 17 November 2012 10:56
- by Frank Wilkins
With Lincoln, Steven Spielberg does a complete 180, calling upon a different set of filmmaking skills than he’s accustomed to using. In a triumphant return to form, the War Horse director moves away from his typical outpouring of visual imagery and tells his story through words rather than pictures. And what a refreshing turn it is.
His Lincoln is an adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s boat anchor of a book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln that provides a unique perspective on the sixteenth president who made many profound national changes for the betterment of our country in such a fiercely divided time.
Actually, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner decided to narrow the focus of their film to a brief segment of the book that delves into a three or four week period in the president’s life as the Civil War was winding down. Lincoln knew he would need to accomplish the end of human slavery by not only shepherding the 13th amendment through a deeply divided Congress, but do it before the end of the war, which would add Southern politicians to the sensitive political equation.
By narrowing their scope in Lincoln, the filmmakers were not only able to concentrate their focus on the most important moments of Lincoln’s presidency, but our country’s history as well. And it allowed them to break Lincoln down from the marbled legend we know, and depict him as a real man… a human engaged, day-by-day down in the filthy trenches of partisan politics – but also driven by the larger vision for the nation and the future of his children. And it also meant the film would be a dialogue-driven performance-fest rather than the visual spectacle that so often characterizes a Spielberg film. Enter Daniel Day-Lewis who, not surprisingly, delivers a knockout performance that amplifies the crowning achievements of both director and writer.
It’s not surprising Day-Lewis would somehow, once again, find a way to sink himself into his character on some kind of sub-atomic level. After all, he’s not only one of Hollywood’s choosiest actors, cherry-picking the fattest roles, but he’s rarely delivered a misfire. And he certainly doesn’t here. Seemingly effortless, he channels the President’s complex, contradictory, even flawed persona and, armed with Kushner’s eloquent prose, comes to life in the reed-thin, hunched-over frame that almost haunts the White House halls. His Lincoln is as comfortable spinning a lyrical yarn to soften a prickly moment, as he is sacrificing a friendship with a terrifying degree of calculation when necessary. And there’s always Spielberg’s astute direction to keep the character and proceedings from spilling over into cliché.
On the sidelines, but refusing to be overrun by Day-Lewis’ tour-de-force, is Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, holding her own as inspirational wife and grief-stricken mother. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Lincoln’s eldest son, makes the most of his scant screen time as eldest son Robert, a college student brooding the fact that he’s not allowed to enlist in the war.
The acting workshop continues with David Strathairn as once Lincoln enemy, now Secretary of State William Henry Seward, and Tommy Lee Jones as “Radical Republican” Pennsylvania abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens who pushed equally hard for the emancipation of slavery. Jones grouses and growls his way through Congress in the body of Stevens but meets his match in one fiery but highly entertaining exchange with Mary Todd after he once tried to have her jailed for over-spending on white house renovations. Many have criticized the dialogue as feeling stiff and affected, but when delivered by the brilliant cast of actors at the top of their games, it feels pointless to remind that most are direct quotes from historical documents.
While it’s still too early to determine exactly where Lincoln might land in the expansive Spielberg oeuvre, the fact remains that he pulled off something quite magical here by capturing not only the gripping nature of democracy’s greatest battle AND making Lincoln, the man, feel alive, but he did it without an overabundance of sweeping crane shots and extended dolly tracks. Just a stripped down narrative that lets the human moments of a cemented historical story evolve in front of our eyes. Brilliant!
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language..
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis; Sally Field, Joseph Hordon-Levitt; Tommy Lee Jones: David Strathairn
Genre: Drama | History
Memorable Movie Quote: "We can't tell our people that we can vote yes on abolishing slavery unless at the same time we can tell them we can tell 'em that you're seeking a negotiated peace"
Distributor: Touchstone Pictures.
Official Site: thelincolnmovie.com
Release Date: November 9, 2012 (limited); November 16 (wide)
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available
Synopsis: Steven Spielberg directs two-time Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, a revealing drama that focuses on the 16th President's tumultuous final months in office. In a nation divided by war and the strong winds of change, Lincoln pursues a course of action designed to end the war, unite the country and abolish slavery. With the moral courage and fierce determination to succeed, his choices during this critical moment will change the fate of generations to come.
No details available.