Steven Spielberg has earned the right to follow his muse. His body of work is synonymous with popular entertainment. His understanding, command, and continuing contribution to the language of cinema is impressive. The way he uses light to tell stories and accentuate moments and moods is a rare gift. Now - to open a film review with such an outpouring of unrestrained admiration for the filmmaker in question should lead the reader to conclude that I am “in the tank” for Spielberg, and I am. I’ve been following his career since I was old enough to understand what a film director was. With films like Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. holding such sway over me as a young film enthusiast, he was my primary gateway to the wonders and magic of cinema.
That said, there have been stumbling blocks along the way. His science fiction collaborations with Tom Cruise resulted in half baked films with strong starts and horrible endings. A.I. was a curious experiment that never quite reached it’s potential, and the last Indiana Jones film was...well...yeah, let’s not waste time with that. We have more important things to speak of.
Lincoln is easily Steven Spielberg’s best film in nearly a decade.
The film concerns itself with the final four months of the near mythical President’s life as he attempts the near impossible. The Civil War is slowly drawing to a welcome close. Tactically, the South is finished and both sides, weary from the brutal bloodshed and economic turmoil of the conflict are creeping toward negotiations of peace and reunification of the Union. While this is clearly in the Nation’s best interest, Lincoln also understands that if the national shame of slavery is ever to be abolished, it must happen now, before the two sides come back together as one. The conflict this creates in Lincoln’s own cabinet, as well as the Senate is understandable. Everyone wants peace, but if slavery is outlawed by a proposed thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, the South may back out and the war will continue. If the South rejoins the Union with slavery still intact, peace may be had, but the war will have been pointless. Here’s the trailer.
The script by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) is sharp and colorful, which is paramount as the film is by and large a series of tense conversations and debates. He stays on focus and tells a sharp, rich story without veering too much away into the war.
Much has already been written about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln, and with good reason - it’s spellbinding. Lewis presents a man who knows the fate of the nation and those who inhabit it, ride on the outcome of decisions he makes, and directions he chooses. You can see the internal stress and frustration that he wrestles with played out on his face and mannerisms. You can also feel his relief when things move forward. It’s a performance for the ages, and makes Lewis the clear front runner for the Oscar this year.
It’s also wonderful to report that the supporting cast is equally as strong. Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a host of others all bring their A Game and turn in electrifying performances that make the screen crackle with energy and life. A strong nod also to Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. He only appears a few times, but carries such gravity, I almost wish he had his own spinoff film.
Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski’s ability to work expertly with light in unusual ways makes him a perfect match for Spielberg. The colors are slightly muted to help suggest the fatigue of the age and the expert use of shadows and darkness in the frame gives one the impression that they made a conscious decision to film in color, but light as if they were shooting in black and white. This gives the resulting images a slightly haunted quality, while setting a perfect tone for the performances to shine brightly.
John Williams, who seems to have entered retirement, returns with a soft and delicate score that never overwhelms, but softly nudges the narrative along with grace and dignity.
Michael Kahn, Spielberg’s editor since Close Encounters, brings it all together with a tightly paced rhythm that sustains the film’s two and a half hour running time. Kahn is a master editor who understands mood, timing, and knows just how long to hold a pregnant pause in order to elicit the maximum amount of humor possible in an otherwise tense and nerve rattling scene. In my book, he’s right up there with Walter Murch.
Spielberg & Company have made a wondrous movie about Abraham Lincoln that firmly captures the essence of the myth and makes him human. Drop what you are doing and go see it. I, for one, can’t wait to see it again.