A Screenshot from Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" featuring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. (Photo : DreamWorks II Distribution Co. )
Director Steven Spielberg has been synonymous with cinematic spectacle during much of his career.
Last year's War Horse was in many ways a tribute to Golden Age Hollywood with its nostalgic imagery and style. Also his other films including war drama Saving Private Ryan has always maintained an energetic pace while Schindler's List, one of the "slower" Spielberg films, still manages to maintain the propulsion of other Spielberg epics, albeit with more intimacy and restraint.
Lincoln is nothing like any Spielberg film before it. The propulsive pace is gone and the epic quality that permeates his style has been relegated to the background so that the intimate portrait of America's greatest icon can take center stage. More importantly, it is Spielberg's most subtle film with the emotional payoff earned through effective drama and not through his routine sentimental tricks. The result is a moving though an uneven endeavor featuring top rate performances.
Those coming into Lincoln expecting a Civil War epic or lengthy biopic should drop those expectations immediately. The film's two and a half hours are dedicated to Lincoln's struggle to get the 13th Amendment passed while also trying to end the Civil War. Save for the opening sequence that depicts battling soldiers, most of the film takes place in Washington D.C. where Lincoln and his cabinet members engage in a number of interminable exchanges on what must be done to end the war. In the process, Spielberg immerses his audience in the behind-the-door dealings and betrayals that went on during the Lincoln administration.
While it is certainly informative material it often lags particularly in the film's first half hour as one lengthy conversation scene after another seems to keep the film from moving in any clear direction. Eventually a number of subplots find themselves in motion and the film gets going. Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) are trying to get the 13th Amendment passed through the House of Representatives so Seward hires William Bilbo (James Spader) and Robert Latham (John Hawkes) to go out and find Democratic votes to get the bill passed. In another subplot, Lincoln has agreed to engage in peace talks with the confederacy if Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) will obtain Republican votes for the bill. A third subplot involves Lincoln's family and son Robert's (Joseph Gordon Levitt) desire to go to war. The plot threads are initially difficult to follow but they slowly come together in a riveting climax upon the House floor when (**Spoiler Alert** for those not familiar with American history) the 13th Amendment finally gets passed.
Daniel Day-Lewis does a superb job as the iconic president. His high pitched voice was initially a controversial talking point, but one quickly becomes accustomed to it. Save for a few charming scenes between Lincoln and his son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), Day-Lewis keeps Lincoln's external emotions in check. His Lincoln comes off as a rather calm fellow, but a number of Spielberg's well placed close-ups and dolly-ins reveal a deeper intensity in the actor's eyes. His seemingly lax demeanor makes the few explosive moments truly chilling and creates a powerful tension around every one of Lincoln's actions. This is a man who in his country's most perilous hour has had to remain firm and composed despite the tragedy surrounding him (including the loss of his own son).
There are many times in this film in which Lincoln pulls off questionable actions that he posits to be the best for the nation. It is during these moments that the fascinating question of whether certain political acts are condonable if the end result serves the greater good are brought up. The fact that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner do not shy away from presenting this often morally ambiguous portrait of the president is to their credit. Of course, they probably could have done away with a few of Lincoln's monologues. While some certainly have gravitas and emotional depth (thanks to Day-Lewis' thoughtful deliveries), more than a few seem to tread the same material that Lincoln has already mentioned in prior monologues. How many different ways does he really need to repeat his reasons for getting this Amendment passed? Is there really a doubt after the second time?
Tommy Lee-Jones matches Day-Lewis as Thaddeus Stevens, a radical republican in favor of the amendment. Whereas Day-Lewis pulls off a few moments of subtle humor, Lee-Jones' Stevens is rather forth coming and his bluntness creates some of the more genuine light touches in the film. However, one gets the sense that the tough talk is simply a cover for a much more vulnerable interior. During a scene at the White House, Stevens has to deal with the First Lady's chiding speech. All the while, Spielberg stays on a close-up of Stevens who has a smirk spread across his face. However, his eyes indicate a man trying to hold it together. Stevens' final payoff may be the most riveting in the entire film.
Sally Field's Mary Todd Lincoln adds an incredible contrast to Day-Lewis' stoic Lincoln. While he is in complete emotional control throughout the scenes, she is his foil, always spewing what she feels even if it may be inappropriate. They share a number of potent scenes together, including a heart wrenching confrontation over whether their son Robert should join the army and fight for his nation. She essentially becomes the emotional conscience that Lincoln has been keeping in check and the eventual resolution of this plot (before his death of course) is heartwarming and makes the president's assassination all the more tragic.
The remainder of the cast does a formidable job--Strathairn as Seward and Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair. Hawkes and Spader fare well as the two diplomats trying to get more votes, but their roles come off as a bit clumsy as Spielberg attempts to garner a few cheap laughs with this duo. During one sequence they run from Capitol hill all the way to an unguarded White House (there is literally no one in the White House while the 13th Amendment is on the house floor save for the President and his son). At another sequence, Spader's Bilbo almost gets killed by a democratic representative but is saved by the fact that the man cannot reload his gun in time despite Bilbo running right back to him to pick up some documents. Even when the man reloads successfully, Bilbo throws dirt in his face and still manages to run away. While these moments do elicit some laughs, the clumsiness and incredibility of these scenes takes away from of the seriousness the film demands of its audience.
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski does an incredible job of imbuing the images of the film with contrast and shadow, but a lot of his work gets easily overlooked by the fact that viewer is more engaged with listening to the film and its lengthy dialogues than actually watching. The grammar of the film, like most dialogue driven pieces, relies heavily on the medium and close-up shots while the majority of the dolly shots are subtle. The makeup department does a fascinating job throughout, especially on making Day-Lewis look identical to the Lincoln portrayed in most photographs.
John Williams has often been chided by critics for being overly sentimental and indulgent, but his music is so restrained throughout this film that one barely remembers when any of the cues took place. It is far from his most memorable score (I don't remember any standout melodic moments) but it does the job it needs to do effectively.
Lincoln is an honorable portrait of America's most venerated idol held together by its powerful performances. The film suffers from pacing problems early on and some awkward tonal shifts and gags, but for those willing to remain patient, Spielberg's latest effort offers a strong emotional reward.
Other Film Reviews by David Salazar