Catnip for political junkies, "Lincoln" might be called "Our Better Angels in America." What more auspicious time to release a film about the president who served during the Civil War than these insecure, battle-weary times of ours?
"Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's long-gestating film about the 16th president of the United States, tells the admittedly talky tale of the final four months of Lincoln's presidency, a time when he works tirelessly to end the war, which has already left 600,000 Americans dead, and pass the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery. In addition to brilliantly depicted scenes of down-and-dirty scheming to persuade and/or bribe a sufficient number of "hicks and hacks" in Congress to pass the amendment, "Lincoln" boasts a performance for the ages by two-time Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. Combining British stage training and American Method acting, Day-Lewis raises Lincoln, a Shakespeare buff and doting father, from the dead. It is a feat as much of black magic as art. In a no-holds-barred performance as fierce abolitionist leader and Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, Tommy Lee Jones is no less spellbinding.
The film, which was written by Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels in America"), was adapted in part from Concord's Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."
Shot by Spielberg's frequent -director of photography- Janusz Kaminski, "Lincoln" rivals the legendary work of Gordon Willis in "The Godfather" in terms of its chiaroscuro and Rembrandt-like lighting.
In many interior scenes in "Lincoln," faces are not shown in full. Instead, countenances emerge from the gloom in lunar-like phases: gibbous, half-moon and crescent-shaped. If D.W. Griffith wrote history with lightning in "Birth of a Nation," Polish-born Kaminski carves it out of darkness.
Similarly, Spielberg eschews "Saving Private Ryan"-style epic battle scenes (except for a battlefield strewn with Union and Confederate corpses) and instead gives us a synecdoche of the Civil War in the form of a cart full of amputated limbs. Like "Schindler's List," Spielberg's best special effect here is a spectacular cast. In addition to Day-Lewis and Jones, the standouts are Sally Field as the troubled, fiercely intelligent Mary Todd Lincoln, Boston native James Spader as a boozy Republican grafter, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, Hal Holbrook, a former Lincoln himself, as Preston Blair, Gloria Reuben as Mary Todd's confidante Elizabeth Keck-ley, -Julie White as Blair's daughter and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. Like the hand of the film's director, John Williams' score is unusually restrained and suitably Aaron Copland-esque.
Congratulations to Spielberg for doing his subject justice. Spielberg's idol, the great John Ford, director of "Young Mr. Lincoln" (1939) with Henry Fonda, would be proud.
("Lincoln" contains graphic images of war violence.)
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