Artists often have to let go of their habits in order to grow. Steven Spielberg has learned this several times in his career, and his wonderful new biopic, “Lincoln”, benefits from his willingness to stop being Spielberg and just tell his story.
Spielberg's “serious” adult dramas have usually been problematic. With the exception of Schindler's List and arguably Munich, his attempts to prove himself as more than a commercial entertainer have suffered from a clash between his duty to depict mature themes convincingly and his natural gift for audience manipulation. Last year's War Horse might have been a great film if Spielberg hadn't leaned on so many of his old crutches, such as those slow zoom-ins into characters' faces at key emotional moments. But with Lincoln, he mostly dispenses with such tricks and focuses on straight character drama. By staying away from his own (and composer John Williams') worst instincts, Spielberg has created what's far and away his best movie in years.
Lincoln may disappoint some viewers who expect to see what its trailers implied: a gargantuan, humourless historical epic rife with grandiose battle scenes, sweeping crane shots and overbearing music. It's surprisingly small-scale, focusing on the sixteenth U.S. president's backstage efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment – the one that banned slavery for good – in the waning months of the Civil War. Based on a short section of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the film centres much of its action in private meeting rooms, areas of the White House and the senate room of the newly finished Capitol. There are glimpses of a young, largely rural Washington and hellish battlefields, but they're not the focus.
It's a talky movie, to be sure – with Abraham Lincoln and others debating political policy and strategy continuously – but Spielberg's genius for frame composition and pacing dialogue scenes keeps the film moving along without ever becoming dull. In fact, Lincoln is a textbook demonstration of how underrated Spielberg is as a director of drama (as opposed to action, fantasy and war movies). And screenwriter Tony Kushner, a past Pulitzer Prize-winner, deserves just as much credit for the movie's success. The dialogue in Lincoln may be influenced by its nineteenth-century setting, but it always crackles with contemporary spontaneity.
As Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis demonstrates once again why he may be the premier film actor of his generation, with his magical ability to disappear into a character so deeply as to become unrecognizable. (Gary Oldman is the only one off the top of my head who even comes close in that respect.) His Honest Abe is not a generic Hollywood hero but a lanky, aging, somewhat awkward man with a reedy, high-pitched voice, whose gentle manner doesn't fit in with the loud, bickering partisan politics of 1865 Washington. (The parallels with today's Washington are clear but not overt.)
Often confusing his colleagues with parable-like anecdotes and quiet calmness, this is a compassionate Lincoln who knows that his position is morally right but also that he has to compromise and play ball with his Democrat opponents in order to reach his goals. Although he's given to quoting the Bible and Shakespeare, his wisdom and determination are equally matched by his country-boy modesty.
But Day-Lewis' Method genius doesn't steal the entire show here. Sally Field's performance as the First Lady, Mary Todd, evens the balance with passion, love and sincerity, while Tommy Lee Jones' laconic take on fellow Republican abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens gets many of the movie's biggest laughs. Indeed, there are no slackers in this cast; even the bit players contribute to a believably rich world of characters, some corrupt and some well-meaning.
My only real quibble about Lincoln is Spielberg's insistence on tacking on expository titles announcing the exact dates, locations and character names for every other scene – a practice he has adopted in most of his historical dramas. Why? It's distracting, and ninety-nine percent of the time, it's also unnecessary. Surely there are more cinematic ways to show such information rather than tell it.
A study of shrewd gamesmanship at a troubled moment in the history of democracy, Lincoln is a near-masterpiece that never loses its interest in the human side of political maneuvering.