By Steve Crum
Eighteen years ago while walking to the parking lot after screening “Jurassic Park,” my then 12-year-old daughter said to me, “Dad, I feel like l’ve just been with real dinosaurs.” She was referring to what she saw in the movie, not me and fellow movie critics. I felt much the same after seeing Steven Spielberg’s recent other work, “Lincoln.” I had been in the presence of our 16th President for 150 minutes, a unique experience, certainly. Figuratively, at its visual core, Lincoln is a collection of Mathew Brady photos come to life.
That is not meant to imply “Lincoln” is a documentary. It isn’t, but the incredible thing about it is its credible realism. Certainly, Spielberg gets enormous credit as director and co-producer, but as in any artistically successful film, his team deserves kudos as well. Tony Kushner’s screenplay, adapted from the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, is laced with sharp wit and stirring rhetoric. The script includes documented speeches and conversations by Lincoln and his associates. After all, how do we really know everything said behind closed doors? Here is where Kushner and Goodwin fictionalize, but believably.
Another component vital to the success and atmosphere of “Lincoln” is the cinematography of Spielberg’s longtime collaborator, Janusz Kaminski. For “Shindler’s List” (1993), Kaminski photographed in newsreel-like black and white, adhering to our perception of WWII. For “Lincoln,” the look is bleached or amber-hued color, resembling 19th Century tintypes. Kaminski and Spielberg also chose to shoot indoor scenes with available light, via candle or kerosene lamp. The use of color seems more a lack thereof, and extremely effective for realism. K/S used a similar look for 1997’s “Amistad.”
“Lincoln” is not a biography of Abe Lincoln’s entire life, but it vividly portrays the man during a critical period in our country’s history, nearing the end of the Civil War, and on the brink of abolishing slavery. In fact, during the course of the movie, we witness (per se) Lee’s surrender to Grant and, after belabored efforts--to say the least, the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. This encompasses the final four months of Lincoln’s presidency and life, in 1865. During all the bickering and figurative backstabbing of Congressional members over both ending the war and passage of the amendment that will end slavery, Lincoln himself stays focused on achieving both goals. The story is enhanced by the inclusion of his badgering wife Mary, finely portrayed by Sally Field, shown to be both a thorn and driving force in her husband’s political efforts.
Of the 100-plus speaking roles, surely a record for any recent motion picture, it is Daniel Day-Lewis who dominates. I am neither the first nor last to note such. His Oscar worthy performance encompasses greatness. Day-Lewis IS Lincoln. Henry Fonda and Raymond Massey will forever be revered for their takes on The Great Emancipator, but the acting benchmark has now been set with Day-Lewis, our greatest living film actor. His body of film work is stunning.
In addition to Day-Lewis and Field, there are at least a dozen noteworthy actors. Among them, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, who tries to persuade his parents to let him enlist as a soldier. Tommy Lee Jones, as Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens, delivers one of the two best performances of his career, the other being “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Others deserving mention include David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, and Jackie Earle Haley.
Scenes cover the Lincolns in bedroom talk, wherein Mary Todd relentlessly blames her husband for the death of their youngest son, Willie. On a lighter note, Lincoln’s tendency to both humor and manipulate fellow politicians by segueing into one of his homey, backwoods parables, even in the midst of advising a battle, adds to his unique characterization.
Incidentally, do not expect elaborate scenes of Civil War battle. There is a sobering scene of Lincoln on horseback, stovepipe hat and all, slowly maneuvering through a battle’s aftermath of hundreds of dead soldiers. I was taken more with the fact President Lincoln is on horseback, an image never photographed--at least to my knowledge.
There is a lot of flourish and pomp in “Lincoln,” as well as humanism and intimacy. Spielberg’s superb storytelling, like his classic “Schindler’s List,” is a must-see.
GRADE: On an A to F Scale: A