Movie Review: Lincoln- An Astonishing Return to Dramatic Greatness for Spielberg as He Humanizes an Elusive Historical Titan

The name of Steven Spielberg invokes two reactions these days, the first being an undeniable respect for the impact he has had on cinema ever since the 70s and the second being a bewildered wonderment of how he has basically lost that magical touch this past decade. Titles such as A.I. or The Terminal or War Horse don’t inspire a great deal of people and remind us that Spielberg has sort of fallen back into a familiar melodramatic style that is obviously manipulative and arguably lazy. When it was announced that he was going to be doing a biography picture on the 16th president of the United States of America Abraham Lincoln there was a skeptical pause even after it was confirmed that the always remarkable Daniel Day-Lewis would be playing the pivotal role. Now all that skeptical pondering can be put to rest because what Steven Spielberg accomplishes here in Lincoln is nothing short of astonishing as he, Tony Kushner’s sobering script, John Williams complimentary score, and Janusz Kaminiski’s subdued cinematography all come together to tackle the palpable and real Abraham Lincoln. This isn’t a film that glorifies a human being but carefully recreates a world vaguely familiar to us in a historical sense and presents it in all its challenging honesty. If John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln represents the mythos of our 16th President then Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln represents the actual man in all his eloquent, personable, and delicate poise. Lincoln is undeniably Steven Spielberg’s best film since his World War II drama Saving Private Ryan captured our attention 14 years ago, which is to say that Lincoln is a Spielberg classic and quite possibly a classic for the cinematic ages that only time can really confirm.

By focusing on a specific period of time and a particular segment of the Abraham Lincoln biography screenwriter Tony Kushner pinpoints an essential and highly overlooked political battle in the midst of the fourth year of the Civil War. This battle was the attempt to pass the 13th Amendment through Congress, which would abolish slavery in full legality as a provision of the Constitution. The script follows Abraham Lincoln as he deals with the bloody devastation of the concluding war, the political gamesmanship trying to sway votes in the House of Representatives, and the struggles of his home life as his focus has drifted away from them and completely to his country. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) tries to balance the heaviness of the war, the rhetorical convincing of politicians, and the inner drama of his household all of which show him losing grip on his known control and patience. What Kushner’s script is trying to convey is a man who is personally struggling with his personal philosophy and contradictory action but also a man who knows that he must live by his own rhetorical promises. So the script is a success as an observational biography picture on one individual but also on how it handles the political process. Even at its most meticulous and procedural parts, such as the floor debates in the House or the detail oriented cabinet meetings, the film remains incredibly captivating and surprisingly emotional. It was wise not to tackle too much of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography on Lincoln and the result is a delicately structured script that allowed for Spielberg to confidently dictate the other cinematic qualities to compliment its balance and grace.

There is not a single ounce of melodramatic exaggeration throughout Lincoln either with John William’s score or Janusz Kaminiski’s cinematography. It’s almost as though the critical recommendations linked to such films as War Horse or War of the Worlds finally registered with Spielberg as he allows the technical approaches to take a back seat to the performances. In doing this more subdued approach the film takes on a scrupulous attention to detail that is historically accurate in design, vernacular, and feel. Kaminski’s camera isn’t as sweeping as it has been this past decade and moves carefully through scenes where Lincoln utilizes political strategy, raconteur reflections, and powerfully convincing oratory. And throughout these sequences there is a beautiful score from John Williams that is never louder than the scene it compliments and subtly acts as an undercurrent to the film instead of a loud projection of attention as it has been for a couple of movies now. Because there is a unique balance between script and technical delivery Lincoln is one of those rare time portals that Steven Spielberg has been known to give us and it’s refreshing to finally have it delivered for a man that greatly deserved that kind of cinematic treatment. Of course, there would be no Lincoln without the graceful and thoughtful performance from the master himself, Daniel Day-Lewis.

Many notable actors have tried to portray Abraham Lincoln in many different ways but very few have embodied the man as an internally challenged yet charmingly warm man. Daniel Day-Lewis humanizes the mythos and grandeur that is the 16th President of the United States by embracing a subtlety of performance that is rare in cinema these days. He is graceful in movement, meaningful in phrase, and convincing in the cast array of emotions he portrays from frustrated weariness to doubtful reflectiveness. It’s a masterful performance on par with his greed mongering in There Will Be Blood or his rebellious angst in In the Name of the Father. He is aided by an excessively large ensemble cast that have some of the best character actors and lead actors working today and they are all so brilliant, so understated, and so delicately chosen that it’s impossible to praise every single one of them. But both Tommy Lee Jones and David Strathairn are remarkably memorable in their key roles as Thaddeus Stevens and Secretary of State William Seward respectively. There was never a doubt that Spielberg could direct an ensemble as fine as this but it’s relieving to know that he didn’t waste the opportunity and gives hope that he can do it again.

Our knowledge of Abraham Lincoln is one of cold historical absorption instead of reflective humanized understanding, and it’s refreshing to finally have a movie that shrinks this historical titan into someone less fabled and more human. Lincoln is an astonishing biography picture because it is clearly focused, exceptionally acted, and contained in its delivery, all of which complement the desired goal of capturing the internal turmoil of the 16th President of the United States as well as his brilliant tactical efforts as a father, a politician, and as a citizen. Steven Spielberg will remind those who have doubted his storytelling abilities that he is truly one of the best around when he is truly dedicated to the belief in a project instead of the carefree fun of a project. And while the ending might feel a little vague and rushed there is no mistaking that Lincoln is one of the most captivating biographical reflections on any individual that has visually pleased our eyes, tapped into our emotions, and broadened our knowledge.

Grade: A

One Response to “Movie Review: Lincoln- An Astonishing Return to Dramatic Greatness for Spielberg as He Humanizes an Elusive Historical Titan”
  1. Sanny says:

    thanks great review!!!!!

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