Steven Spielberg is one of our greatest living storytellers. I seem to recall that several critics accused last year’s War Horse of being overly sentimental, but I was so caught up in the effortless, confident elegance of the veteran director’s visual style that I hardly noticed. He approached the material with the enthusiasm of a first-time filmmaker; I suppose some of that excitement must have rubbed off on me.
I bring up War Horse only to illustrate Spielberg’s range: his followup, the long-delayed Lincoln, is that fairy tale film’s exact opposite–an understated observation of the mundane rhythms of everyday life in a bygone era… a period of time which just happens to include the passage of the 13th Amendment and the end of the American Civil War.
The cinematic aesthetic that Spielberg adopts feels like an extension of his protagonist’s personality. As embodied by the chameleonic Daniel Day-Lewis, the sixteenth president of the United States speaks softly and tends to ramble, but always manages to impart some wisdom to those who bother to listen. Spielberg, too, shows great wisdom by foregoing many of his usual flourishes, instead creating stage-like spaces (gorgeously framed by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) and giving his cast of immensely talented performers (including Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, and Jackie Earle Haley) complete freedom to play in them. Also wise is his decision to humanize an all-too-often deified icon of American history. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln faces a race against time: with the Confederates poised to surrender, he knows that the opportunity to abolish slavery is rapidly fading. He needs to act quickly if he hopes to push the amendment through Congress–and he’s not above buying votes and evading questions about the impending peace negotiations to accomplish his goal.
And yet, amidst all the political drama, the movie’s most poignant moment–the small character beat that defines what the story is really about–has nothing to do with the central conflict: Tad, Lincoln’s youngest son, dozes in front of the fireplace; his father kneels down beside him, wakes him with a gentle kiss on the forehead, and gives him a piggyback ride to bed. Whether you consider him a savior or a tyrant, this fleeting snapshot, Spielberg suggests, represents the true Abraham Lincoln.
[Originally written November 17, 2012.]