Steven Spielberg boasts one of the most accomplished bodies of work in American cinema and, to this day, steadily builds upon that dominant track record. From the breathtaking 3D action sequences of The Adventures of Tintin to the comic-yet-poignant reconciliation scene in War Horse, one doesn’t have to look back decades to find Spielberg’s particular genius at work. Still, for filmgoers either too young to have been bowled over by Spielberg’s transcendent initial decade or two—or for those who perhaps just take his signature style for granted—Lincoln shows just how good he is. Thanks to a strong cast and a smart story that’s historically, morally and politically rich, Lincoln will go down as one of Spielberg’s greatest accomplishments.
In the role of the 16th president, Daniel Day-Lewis delivers one of the best performances in a career already full of stellar turns. Given his devotion to the Method and his intense concentration as an artist, Day-Lewis could have easily created a tremendous caricature of Lincoln that would have worked quite well. Instead, he demonstrates masterful restraint, presenting a simple, subtle take on the former president, as if he had spent years shadowing Lincoln instead of years reading books about him. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is sad, quiet, wise, hopeful and surprisingly witty.
The rest of the cast also turn in notable performances. As Lincoln’s ill wife, Mary, Sally Fields reminds us of just how fine a performer she can be, diving headfirst into her role as the emotionally complex first lady, and Tommy Lee Jones at times steals the show as the hilarious and outspoken Pennsylvania Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens, a grumpy old, wig-wearing politician who likes to name-call more than actually debate. Other actors, from Joseph-Gordon Levitt (Lincoln’s older son) to David Strathairn (Secretary of State William Seward) shine brightly, as well.
The story in which these characters exist, though, is Lincoln’s greatest strength; it holds all the pieces together. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner, the film centers on the end of Lincoln’s life, specifically his commitment to pass the 13th amendment before the end of the Civil War. Given Spielberg’s blockbuster-leaning tendencies, one might expect an epic scope and at least a handful of action sequences, but that’s not the case. In terms of sight and sound, the film stays small and intimate in spite of the weighty stakes at hand, and for better or worse, John Williams keep the score fairly toned down. With only a singular war scene—dreadful images after the opening credits—most of the film takes place in the White House and on the floor of the House of Representatives, where Lincoln and his men strive to end slavery once and for all.
Contrary to most of the iconic director’s work, Lincoln hinges on sharp, pointed dialogue, yet the transcendent, hopeful vision that emerges is pure Spielberg. At its core, Lincoln doesn’t merely explore the dynamics of family, politics, war or the liberation of slaves in America through a morally aware, validly sentimental lens; it also provides an insightful lesson in history. On the surface, this lesson may only seem to point toward further love and justice toward our fellow man, but in digging deeper, it points toward a greater power, the source of these ideas according to Honest Abe. Lincoln doesn’t merely celebrate a man; instead, it celebrates something bigger.
In this sense, Spielberg’s latest begs to be compared to another Daniel Day-Lewis-anchored period piece meant to serve as a microcosm of American society—Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. But whereas Anderson’s protagonist, Daniel Plainview, flees from God and religion, Spielberg’s Lincoln embraces such things. And while There Will Be Blood portrays America as a godless, despondent country, the Lincoln portrays it as a dark and difficult place that is nonetheless filled with the hope of divine intervention. And though it’s difficult to know what exactly There Will Be Blood says about Anderson, the optimism and faith of Lincoln seems an appropriate reflection of the heart and soul of Spielberg.
Writer: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lews, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon Levitt, David Strathairn
Release Date: Nov. 16, 2012