In a fashion uncharacteristic of his famously dazzling aesthetic, Steven Spielberg has produced one of the finest films of his career in Lincoln; a densely worded but deftly handled political drama that illuminates the man behind the myth as he fought to enact the 13th amendment.
In the waning days the American Civil War, the two-term president (Daniel Day-Lewis) stares down the horns of a dilemma as put to him by his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn): Either he can entertain negotiations from Confederate delegates to bring about an end to the conflict now in its fourth year, or he can push for the abolition of slavery, dangling it as a carrot before the divided House of Representatives as a quicker alternative to peace. Opting for the latter, “Honest” Abe is forced into some decidedly manipulative politicking. As behind-the-scenes history plays out, we see how freedom for the slaves was not so much won on the floors of Congress as it was craftily massaged into being from the smoky drawing rooms of Washington.
Enlisted to help persuade malleable Democrats into voting for the Republican president's controversial amendment are three political specialists (played by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and James Spader in a delicious comic relief role) who set to work right away at tipping the tide. Also on Lincoln's side is Republican Radical Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), although to best serve the cause at hand of “equality before the law”, he must compromise and denounce his true opinion of total “racial equality” – an enlightened notion to us in retrospect, but too ahead of its time to have done any good for this all-important first step in the right direction.
While Lincoln's political embattlement takes priority in his life, so too does he face opposing fronts of the war at home between his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who disagree on the matter of Robert's enlistment to fight for the Union.
Lincoln is a compelling but atypical entry in Spielberg's crowded resume in that Spielberg himself is not the star. In fact, aside from the familiar names of his usual crew, there's nothing distinctly Spielbergian about it, and in this case, it's much to the film's benefit. The restraint on his part provides an immaculately set but low key stage on which the performances are truly able to shine. Likely Oscar contenders Day-Lewis, Jones, and Field are excellent, of course, but to me, none of them are particularly more impressive than the multitude of supporting players who lend this historical drama such accessible voice. The ensemble is a rich who's-who of character actors from which it's hard to select a stand-out, although I was rather taken with Strathairn's natural and nuanced take on Lincoln's loyal but harried Secretary of State before the character became less prominent in the movie's last half.
Top billing should really go to playwright Tony Kushner, who scripts each scene with eloquent, theatrical dialogue, but Spielberg prevents the material from ever feeling stagey. As for the usual suspects of Spielberg's craftspeople, they all contribute top knotch yet toned down work. Janusz Kaminski's artfully composed frames find exquisite light in a desaturated palette (compared to War Horse's eye-popping colours, this film is practically black and white!). The makeup and costume designs work beautifully in tandem to make each character visually distinct, and Rick Carter's sets are positively swimming in detail. The most noticeably dialed back element has to be John Williams' effective though mostly quiet music, used more sparingly here than any film he's scored, far as I know.
It's not quite a perfect movie. As thrilling as Spielberg is able to make Kushner's verbose words, it does take a while for things to get interesting. Certainly not for the inattentive. And while the proceeding two-and-a-half hours are terrific, the whole thing does wrap up on a somewhat odd note, suffering a bit from the “multiple-ending-itis” that afflicted The Return of the King. Still, the achievement here inarguable.
***1/2 out of ****