Steven Spielberg is quite possibly America’s most recognizable director. His career spans decades and has produced some of the most memorable films and characters in American cinematic history. Nonetheless, his prominent status has caused skeptics to write him off as superficial, crowd-pleasing, overly melodramatic, and at times corny. These attacks on Spielberg are not always unwarranted, however, his body of work is mostly impeccable and, at times, avant-garde. With Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s 31st film as director, Spielberg focuses on the 16th president’s chaotic battle to pass the 13th amendment. While the battle to make the film was also rigorous, it seems that the final product is worthy of both battles.
Daniel Day-Lewis once again disappears into his role, playing Abraham Lincoln in such a way that it is hard to imagine anyone else capable of playing this historical figure. Day-Lewis plays the part with a quiet confidence. Lincoln’s voice is portrayed with a surprisingly warm, high registered tone. This is apparently, historically accurate and is a nice touch. Spielberg seems to know what he has here and takes a subtler approach from the technical aspect, allowing Day-Lewis and a host of other A-List actors to propel the film. Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader are particularly good as Thaddeus Stevens and W.N. Bilbo, respectively. This subtlety from the director’s chair is a good decision, and while Spielberg’s approach is subtle, the film is complex. It doesn’t hurt that Oscar nominees and winners are in dozens of supporting roles, prompting a superior ensemble experience. Writer Tony Kushner adapts Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography expertly without losing any majesty. Kushner’s dialogue is Shakespearean at times and great importance is placed on what is said, not just who is saying it.
Lincoln wisely examines the final few months of the president’s life as he begins his second term. This is not a traditional bio-pic; it separates itself from the routine of that genre and simply tells a great story about a president who happens to live his life through a series of great stories. Lincoln’s political objective is to pass the 13th amendment abolishing slavery through the House of Representatives before the inauguration. This plan hinges on swaying lame-duck Democrats who are about to leave office to support his position. The film is truly an allegory for contemporary politics. It is very hard to watch Lincoln and not draw some pretty steep comparisons with the pageantry and stubbornness of today’s political landscape.
Most of Lincoln works very well. Lincoln the storyteller, Lincoln the lawyer, Lincoln the husband, and Lincoln the politician are explored evenly and with merit. The only major flaw comes when the film attempts to examine Lincoln the father. It is a well-known fact that Steven Spielberg has had some father issues. He often directs films with protagonists who have a dysfunctional relationship with their fathers. In Lincoln, this element is investigated through Lincoln’s relationship with his oldest son, Bob (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Unfortunately, this story is immensely under-developed and symbolically vapid. While Lincoln’s home life is deeply important to understanding the man, the misunderstanding between Lincoln and Bob leads to one mildly interesting scene that still would have been mildly interesting even if Bob was not a part of it. Regardless of Bob’s significance, the conflict between father and son seems thrown together compared to the more pressing conflicts in the film, resulting in a missed opportunity.
Meanwhile, Lincoln offers plenty for history buffs to sink their teeth into, and yet the story is accessible to all audiences. Spielberg takes some narrative chances to use unknown history to make well-known history compelling and interesting, especially in the film’s final act. This is Spielberg’s finest effort in some time. All in all, we are given a portrait of a very great man, and we are reminded of what qualities make a man great. A-