With Lincoln, Steven Spielberg has crafted his most stately film yet, and his most engrossing in 15 years. Covering solely the four months that saw to the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the ending of the Civil War and his own death, Lincoln has little concern for the origins of its subject’s philosophy and views, nor is it interested in delving too deep into his childhood, or his years as an Illinois lawyer before becoming a public servant. What it is interested in is the simple fact that this man existed, a man so mired in his own myth, he’s rarely afforded a chance to be seen as anything but.
Sacrificing countless lives to deliberately stall the end of the Civil War to get his amendment passed, knowing full well that it was the country’s only chance to end slavery in the foreseeable future, Honest Abe stood at the crossroads of history, a man alone. As Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis turns in a brilliantly lived in, soft-spoken and intelligent performance that holds up to our collective impressions of that stoic and wise leader of men, but at once also exhibits in full force Lincoln’s folksy humor, his obsessive work ethic and the outwardly reflected pain and inner trauma that was at the core of a man who held in his hands the fates of millions. Equal credit must be awarded to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner for his screenplay, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”, which layed the groundwork for the whole production. At first some of the dialogue comes off as strangely foreign, similar to Shakespeare, which while obviously written in English, still has the power to alienate or confuse many contemporary audiences. But as in The Wire, television’s own portrait of an America in crisis, one should not blame the material’s initial aloofness and instead, stick by it. It will all come easily enough once you do, and the rewards will be many.
The best legal drama in recent memory, it makes the halls of the House of Representatives pulse with a fervent energy that I’m sure will remain unmatched in the following months leading up to Oscar’s big day. Lending to that energy is a parade of facial hair that within contains a who’s who of some of the better character actors working today. Amongst them, Tommy Lee Jones, Peter McRobbie, Walton Goggins, Boris McGiver, David Costabile, Wayne Duvall, Bill Raymond, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lee Pace and David Warshofsky all hurl insults and engage themselves in the gaudy high rhetoric and speechifying we’ve become so accustomed to in political films, and while there isn’t anything too new in what they say or how they say it, it is damn fun to watch. Outside the House, while not nearly as much fun, we have just as many good and talented performers. John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a scene stealing James Spader for one (three?), are joined by the most estimable David Strathairn, their employer and Secretary of State, as “political operatives.” On the family front we have Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Sally Field as Lincoln’s neglected eldest son and wife, and while they might appear underused, they are not lacking for development or implied grief, and serve their functions within this particular narrative quite nicely. Rounding out the rest of notables are the less featured (but equally deserving in name dropping ) Hal Holbrook, Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley and Bruce McGill, as Republican leader Francis Preston Blair, General Ulysses S. Grant, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, respectively.
Beautifully understated, with a distantly cold overall palette that is nonetheless very inviting, Janusz Kaminski’s photography easily stands toe to toe with Day-Lewis’ own take on the material, and is a most welcome relief from his very loud riffs on John Ford in Spielberg’s last effort, War Horse. Noted composer and Spielberg regular John Williams, for his part, seems to have reached into America’s collective musical traditions and here has let nothing lie untouched, from his huge orchestral numbers to his more intimate solos. Not always effective and more than a little distracting, it seems like Williams was the only one who didn’t receive the memo to take it down a few notches and not amp up on the theatrics.
An easy frontrunner alongside Argo, Lincoln is guaranteed several nominations in next year’s especially hectic awards cycle. While some wins might prove elusive, it’s also important to remember that they’re really not too big of a deal anyways (unless you work in marketing), and nobody should go without seeing this film and forming their own opinion. For Dreamworks, for Cinema and your own self respect, I would highly recommend Lincoln, one of the year’s safest bets for mass appeal and also one of its genuinely great films.
Lincoln is in theaters now.
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