Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
Lincoln may be touted as a Steven Spielberg film, but the director feels uncharacteristically absent from his latest work. In this chatty biopic of the United States’ 16th president, top praise goes to screenwriter Tony Kushner, who brings politics to gripping life through the power of language. His words eloquently delivered by an unfairly strong cast, Kushner sparks excitement while Spielberg, perhaps sensing the script’s stardom, takes a subtle approach. Focusing almost exclusively on a single tumultuous month near the end of Abraham Lincoln’s life, the film is not the sweeping visual epic that the convergence of subject and players suggests, yet remains thoroughly moving. By going small, Spielberg allows the iconic figures and topics the simple showcase they deserve, and nearly gets away with it.
In January 1865, two years have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation, yet completely abolishing slavery remains an elusive political goal. Intertwined with the 13th amendment’s passage is the end of the Civil War, now in its fourth year of bloody combat despite the South’s waning resources. Faced with a limited window for the legislation as a negotiated peace seems inevitable, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his cabinet must secure enough votes in the House of Representatives for the bill to succeed, an outcome for which the moral leader will go to extreme lengths.
With Lincoln caught in the middle, Kushner thoughtfully captures the complex dramas besetting the president, both politically and personally. Day-Lewis ably meets the challenge, imbuing his wax museum appearance with a calming command, an attitude of necessity to maintain composure amidst staggering pressures. An elected man of the people, his Lincoln lends an ear in candid talks with soldiers in the field and with average citizens visiting his office. Foremost in their minds is the war’s conclusion, his influence over which Lincoln is coolly yet keenly aware. Debating combat options with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) and arranging for undercover peace negotiations through influential conservative figure Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), he aims to please his constituents yet concurrently pursues an even loftier goal.
The lifelong project of Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the amendment is on the minds of many yet failed to pass through a stubborn House 10 months prior. Assisting Lincoln in this and all matters political, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) enlists a trio of operatives (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and James Spader) to sway potential fence-sitting Democrats, many of whom are lame ducks. The exploits of these three, especially a pudgy, oafish Spader, provide mild and welcome comic relief through the lengths they will go to secure a vote. These various cogs turning just as his mind works non-stop, Lincoln finds some solace in the White House, though even it is no true escape. Given consistent tough love by his wife Mary (Sally Field), Lincoln’s life is further complicated by the return home of his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wants to join the Union Army despite his parents’ disapproval.
Kushner develops each of these characters and over 15 more, crafting them as distinguishable beings whose respective mindsets and contributions to history are unmistakable. When Lincoln comes down to its inevitable big vote, sufficient time has been spent with each of the wild cards so that their thoughts in this crucial moment are evident. With a House full of such carefully constructed politicians, plus key players sitting on the outskirts eagerly awaiting the results, Kushner achieves a remarkable balancing act, the culmination of which has been building since the opening scene. No stranger to juggling large casts, the Angels in America scribe is arguably at his best here, breathing vibrancy and immediacy into a political process that, in the wrong hands, could have played out like an afternoon of C-SPAN.
And yet despite such command of character and Lincoln’s surprisingly nimble 2.5 hour pace, the filmmaking itself is fairly dull. The warmth and clarity that define Spielberg’s work are present, but the film lacks a single notable composition, camera movement, or edit. At its core, the film is a Kushner play and to deviate from Spielberg’s simple, focused approach would potentially reek of inauthenticity. Flashiness likely has little place in a serious mid-19th century piece, though for all Lincoln’s dramatic strengths, the occasional directorial flourish might have elevated the scattered moments when even its primary asset (Day-Lewis speaking Kushner) hits a hollow note.
Outside of the unexpected commitment to subtlety, Spielberg’s competent filmmaking takes no risks, ceding all sense of daring to Kushner’s magnificent writing. On one hand, it’s impressive that Spielberg steps to the side and allows Lincoln’s strongest piece its much-deserved due. On the other hand, there’s a desire for the director to follow Kushner’s lead and elevate his own contribution, the lack of which keeps the film from realizing its full cinematic potential.
Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language.
Lincoln is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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