REVIEW: Feel like time-travelling to US history’s pivot point? Go see LINCOLN. ****
If there’s one thing that Spielberg’s latest teaches all of us, it’s that Abraham Lincoln is a man worth studying regardless of who your president is. That might sound like a given even before Team of Rivals was a speck of light in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s mind, but consider today’s madding crowd. Kids learn about Lincoln in high school only to drink or smoke it all away, and History keeps losing popularity in Universities as the years rush ahead. Unless you’ve got a keen interest in the subject, it’s doubtful that you know much about Lincoln apart from what he looks like and maybe as “that guy who ended slavery”. After two Lincoln movies you don’t hear much about these days – D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930) and the Criterion-endorsed Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) from John Ford – Steven Spielberg’s 10-year long passion project comes to life on screen as a slap to every face that scratches its head about who this chap really was.
He’s finally made a movie worthy of the stature his name carries since “Munich”, seven long years ago. Masterfully concentrating only on one specific aspect of Lincoln’s presidency – securing the vote for the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (the slavery one) – we glimpse the hardships of politics, family life, prejudiced mind sets and a nation divided under the watchful and caring eyes of America’s 16th president Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis). Though Spielbergo is the conductor who has orchestrated this hymn to history, there’s three main pillars that keeps the loftiness of the subject matter bereft of crumbling: the acting, Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography and Tony Kushner’s screenplay.
When I say acting, I really mean Day-Lewis, and a few other stand outs. The guy’s in a class of his own, yet again disappearing into a role without a trace. The actors who share scenes with him (and everyone gets that privilege) have this genuinely dazed look about them after he finishes speaking that I’d bet money isn’t acting at all. I think they’re actually shocked at what this man is capable of. Abraham Lincoln immortalized. There are noticeables apart from the World’s Greatest Actor. Tommy Lee Jones’s Thadius Stevens is given the best lines and he chews up the scenes as if his career depended on it (almost bringing the audience I was with to its feet at one point), and the trio of James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson delightfully release us from the sombre seriousness of it all. Spader, looking awesome with a century-defining mustache, particularly relishing his role as political operative W.N. Bilbo.
Kaminski’s been with Spielberg since 1993’s “Schindler’s List” but his cinematography hasn’t looked better in quite some time (2007’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, or, to stick with the Spielbergography, 2001’s “A.I.”). The over-saturated celestial look of last year’s “War Horse” is thankfully out of sight, out of mind and with “Lincoln” a strong theory can be made that Kaminski works best indoors; with dusty darkness and demure lighting as his tools. The shots look like history chapters come to life and seeing as almost the whole film takes place behind closed doors it often happens that Spielberg’s camera and Kaminski’s photography create a stunning dance of hopeful light and contemplative shadows. Catching the President’s reflection in the corners of the frame every chance they get is a particular touch of cinematic genius and example of a deep understanding between character, light and camera.
Then there’s Kushner’s screenplay adapted from Goodwin’s book. Last time Kushner and Spielberg teamed up, the outcome was the engrossing and morally complex “Munich”. And Pulitzer-prize winner Kushner’s said himself that he thinks Lincoln is the best thing he’s written…ever. After seeing the film, you might think “man, politicians never shut up” but words have always been the politico’s bread and butter, and with Kushner’s pen this butter melts sweetly on its perfectly toasted bread. (Note: Haven’t read Goodwin’s book, yet, but it’s hailed as one of the best about Honest Abe so I’m sure Kushner will thank her first when he gets that Oscar.)
The filmmaking team behind this project did a lot of things right, far outbalancing the imperfections. John Williams’s horns are still sleep-inducing, but unlike “War Horse”, we’re not subjected to them for too long. Sally Field will get a Supporting Actress nomination, but she’s got a snowball’s chance of winning because the line between hysteria and absurdity of her Mary Todd is thinner than Joseph Gordon Levitt’s mustache. And, like almost every other Spielberg film, “Lincoln” doesn’t know a good ending even when it’s slowly walking away and fading to black. The extra 10 or so minutes are needless but don’t do much to diminish the overall satisfaction you’re left with. Spielberg’s said that he wants people to watch his film and go on to read and learn more about the man who’s now hailed as the greatest of all US presidents. By successfully portraying Lincoln as genius politician light-years ahead of his time, who was also just a man a father and a husband, simply put, he’s done it.
BOTTOM LINE: Boasting tour-de-force performances and one of the best screenplays of the year, Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is monumental in its importance, majestic in its delivery and the director’s best film in years.