The prospect of making a definitive movie about Abraham Lincoln must have been daunting even to Steven Spielberg. It’s not just that the Great Emancipator is the most beloved figure in American history, or that thousands of scholarly tomes have already examined every possible facet of Lincoln’s life and career. The problem Spielberg faced after an admitted decade of mulling over his inevitable Lincoln film had to be one of professional practices. How could the director adhere to long-held methods — from his penchant for crowd-pleasing, heartwarming tales to his scene-crushing reliance on overly sentimental music — without trivializing a subject that no one wants to see diminished?
The answer, as it turns out, was simple: hire the two best possible collaborators in the world for this particular project — two-time Oscar winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood) and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tony Kushner (Angels in America) — and then get out of the way. With its light touch, spare camera work and deliberate pacing, Lincoln may be the most uncharacteristic film Spielberg has ever made. Its many pleasures are almost purely intellectual. There’s a brief and intense battle scene early on, but the rest of this long movie involves people in darkened rooms speaking eloquently about matters of great national and philosophical importance. As a result, Lincoln won’t stand among Spielberg’s many all-time box-office hits. But it will be regarded as one of his finest and most authentically moving films.
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Virtually everyone who’s going to see Lincoln over the holidays expects the brilliant Day-Lewis to perform another cinematic miracle in the title role, and no one’s going home disappointed. It’s a relief to see the mythic figure fully brought to life on screen. Now 55, Day-Lewis had begun to resemble familiar photos of our 16th President even before makeup, costumes and immense verbiage were applied. Whether spinning folksy yarns that always seem to end in a potent message or addressing the sort of family troubles to which anyone can relate, Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is a study in contrasts — a humble, melancholic father and husband on one hand, a ferocious intellect and ruthless political strategist on the other. Kushner’s beautiful script fuels the fire and leaves us time to fully assimilate Lincoln’s essential guiding principles.
Amazingly, Lincoln builds tremendous suspense through its depiction of the painstaking legislative process that would result in the passage of the 13th amendment to the constitution outlawing slavery in the United States. This is not the typical stuff of high drama, especially given that we all know how things turned out. Ratcheting the tension and gradually earning almost equal screen time with Day-Lewis is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania congressman to the political left of Lincoln who might have derailed the amendment by refusing to compromise his high ideals. Jones brings passion to the film and halts any chance of it turning into a civics lesson.
Lincoln is powerful enough to make you wish it had been released a couple of weeks earlier, while we were still in the throes of our intensely political season. Even now, it provides a mind-clearing antidote to the irrelevant nonsense that saddles our presidential campaigns. That’s more than we have a right to expect from a Hollywood film, from Steven Spielberg or anyone else.
Lincoln starts today at theaters across the New Orleans area.