Director : Steven Spielberg
Screenplay : Tony Kushner (based in part on the book Team of Rivals The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Strathairn (William Seward), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln), James Spader (W.N. Bilbo), Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), John Hawkes (Robert Latham), Jackie Earle Haley (Alexander Stephens), Bruce McGill (Edwin Stanton), Tim Blake Nelson (Richard Schell), Joseph Cross (John Hay), Jared Harris (Ulysses S. Grant), Lee Pace (Fernando Wood), Peter McRobbie (George Pendleton), Gulliver McGrath (Tad Lincoln)
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln opens in the mud and blood of a Civil War battlefield with Union and Confederate soldiers hacking and slashing at each other with any means at their disposal—rifle butts, bayonets, boot heels, and the like. It’s a brief, but powerfully effective depiction of the violence of war at its hand-to-hand ugliest, and it establishes the stakes of the political maneuvering taking place back in Washington—literally life and death—while also providing an apt visual metaphor for the film as a whole. While no actual blood is spilt on the floor of Congress, make no mistake that another war was going on in the Capitol’s hallowed halls, this one fought with blustery rhetoric, angry denunciations, sharp attacks, and plenty of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing. The release of Lincoln so close on the heels of one of the most fractious Presidential elections in history is significant, as this is a film that aims for nothing less than the restoration of our faith in the ability of the political process, corrupt and devious though it may be, to act as an instrument of moral good.
While Lincoln was originally envisioned nearly a decade ago as a sprawling biopic covering the entirety of the 16th President’s life, it has (thankfully) been whittled down into an intense focus on the final months of Lincoln’s second term, in which he successfully passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, thus ending slavery, and brought the Civil War to an end before being assassinated. It is a brief stretch of time that, by any measure, is one of the most important in the history of the United States, and the best thing one can say about Spielberg’s frequently magnificent film is that its peek behind the curtain of 19th-century politics never feels like a history lesson. The weight of history is certainly present in every scene, but so are the undeniable correlations between past and present that make it feel so immediate and pertinent.
Liam Neeson, whose leading role in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) cemented his reputation nearly 20 years ago, had been attached to the project for years, but ultimately bowed out, leaving the role of Abraham Lincoln to Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays the iconic President in another of his tour-de-force inside-out disappearing acts. Day-Lewis embodies Lincoln in a way that confirms the President’s historic stature while also emphasizing the human being behind all the reverent granite statues. He adopts a reedy Midwestern tenor that is quite unlike any voice he has ever used (certainly a far cry from Daniel Plainview’s rough-hewn baritone), and it gives his dialogue a rich, plain-spoken quality that reminds us at all times that Lincoln was, for lack of a better word, an ordinary guy who found his way into extraordinary circumstances. (There are times when we sense that Day-Lewis and Spielberg are channeling John Ford’s 1939 classic Young Mr. Lincoln, particularly when Spielberg uses the widescreen to frame Lincoln’s long, gangly legs propped on a chair, a favorite pose of Henry Fonda’s.) Whether he is ruminating over his decision to trump states’ rights in signing the Emancipation Proclamation or telling an off-color joke about George Washington’s portrait being hung in a water closet, Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is decidedly human, a moral pragmatist whose moments of weakness and doubt paled next to the strength of his convictions. The beauty of the portrayal is that it takes Lincoln down from the mount without losing the essence of what makes him such a crucial historical figure—the President and statesman to which all others aspire.
Day-Lewis’s performance is greatly enhanced by the quality of the cast that surrounds him, which despite being enormous never feels overwhelming. Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln as a loving, but emotionally unstable wife whose greatest fear is losing another child to the war, which is why she insists that Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), their eldest son, not join the army despite his fervent desire to do so. Although Lincoln’s political team is headed by the dignified and proper Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), they are not above hiring professional political operatives (memorably played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes) to literally buy the necessary votes to get the 13th Amendment passed. That Spielberg treats their political cajoling with both seriousness and humor is testament to the film’s tapestry of emotional richness and willingness to play with historical solemnity. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s greatest ally in Congress, the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), is also his greatest liability, as Stevens is a man of great bluster and crankiness and not much restraint, given to speaking his mind—particularly regarding his “radical” belief in true equality among the races—even when it is not politically prudent to do so. Jones has a fine time with the role, and he gets to chew on and spit out some of the film’s most delectable lines of dialogue—the kind of searing, perfectly phrased put-downs that most of us manage only in our dreams. The screenplay by playwright Tony Kushner (who previously worked with Spielberg on Munich) is both economical and dramatically charged, wrapping vivid political details from Doris Kearns Goodwin’sTeam of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln in heightened dialogue that still sounds genuine.
The film’s burnished cinematography by Spielberg’s regular collaborator Janusz Kaminski (this is their 13th collaboration) adds to the rich, lived-in feel of the superbly detailed production design by Rick Carter (another Spielberg regular whose work with the director dates back to 1993’s Jurassic Park). While a number of Spielberg’s visual hallmarks, particularly ethereal blown-out windows and the sharp juxtaposition of light and dark, are in evidence, he adopts a more nuanced and highly restrained directorial style that gives the actors plenty of room to work. Rather than keeping the camera in constant motion, he often locks it down and lets the actors move within the multiple layers of space, particularly Day-Lewis, who conveys Lincoln’s exhaustion from years of war and politics with narrow shoulders and a slight hunch, but also explodes into strong gestures and even stronger words, at one point wielding his power as President in a manner that is almost frightening (“I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power. You will procure me these votes,” he orders) and later in an emotional showdown with Mary in which she accuses him of wanting to put her away in a “madhouse.”
Those small warts aside, the tone of the film is clearly reverent, and we are meant to stand in awe of Lincoln the Great Emancipator and what he and his allies accomplished at a time when it seemed that the United States would never be whole again, which is perhaps why Spielberg chose to follow the story all the way through to Lincoln’s assassination (which takes place off-screen), so that we, like those around him, could fully mourn his death. Yet, Lincoln is no white-washed hagiography, and in the end we are left not with a marble icon, but with a flesh-and-blood man who felt compelled to make something right and did literally everything in his power to accomplish it.
|Lincoln 4-Disc Blu-Ray + DVD + Digital Copy Combo Pack|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish|
|Distributor||Touchstone Home Entertainment / DreamWorks Studios / 20th Century Fox|
|Release Date||March 26, 2013|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Although not an excessively long film (it runs almost exactly two and a half hours), Lincoln is housed on a separate Blu-Ray disc from most of the supplements, thus ensuring a maximum amount of bitrate, the evidence of which is quite clear in the first-rate presentation. Janusz Kaminski’s evocative, burnished cinematography is beautifully rendered, especially in terms of the amazing contrast, which features the entire spectrum from complete black to blown-out whites while still maintaining vestiges of the texture of the 35mm celluloid on which it was shot. The color palette is generally muted throughout, in keeping with the general style of historical dramas. The high-definition presentation is particularly beneficial to the film’s production design, from the historically accurate sets to the finest details of the costumes. This is, all in all, a first-rate visual presentation of a gorgeous film. The same can be said for the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1-channel surround soundtrack, which is subtle and nuanced in all the best ways. However, that does not meant that the surround channels are not put into play; actually, they are used more than you would think, particularly in the echoing halls of Congress where boos and applause fill the space, the brief but violent battle scene that opens the film, and the ticking of Lincoln’s ever-present watch when he is deep in thought.|
|There are roughly an hour’s worth of behind-the-scenes supplements (six featurettes total) spread across the two Blu-Ray discs that cover all the major points about the film’s production. Interview subjects include director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams, author Doris Kearns Goodwin, and actors Daniel-Day Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, among others. Some of the more interesting topics covered include the extensive use of actual locations in Richmond, Virginia, to stand in for Civil War-era Washington, DC (I had assumed that many of the spaces, including the White House and Congress, were built sets, but I was wrong); the process Day-Lewis used to essentially “become” Abraham Lincoln; the manner in which Spielberg maintained an aura on the set by asking everyone not to chit-chat about current events during production; and, most fascinating of all, the efforts made by the sound design team to not just be authentic in reproducing the sounds of the period, but to actually track down a watch owned by Lincoln to record and use in the background of several crucial scenes. Short of a commentary by Spielberg (which he continues to refuse to do), I can’t think of the supplements being significantly more inclusive or informative.|
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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