Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is about what you’d expect from a Spielberg historical epic/biopic/war film. He has, after films like Schindler’s List, Munich, War Horse, and Saving Private Ryan established himself as an auteur with his own visual and emotional style that is gritty and elegant and always (always) pacifist in theme as it laments the violence humanity enacts upon both itself and the world it belongs to. It is much too easy to feel simultaneous cinematic pride and personal shame when watching anything Spielberg has done since the mid 90s. Lincoln is no different.
The movie handily takes us into the lead up to the Civil War: yes, the President is torn and challenged, just as the nation is, but the truly surprising element in this story is how political the entire enterprise is. There is actually very little of Lincoln staring dreamily into the distance, wondering if the union will survive the coming war. Instead, we have a movie about backroom dealings and outright political bribery, much of which makes today’s post Citizens United political world look shockingly tamed. If you want to talk character assassination, check out what is said about Lincoln in this movie by his Confederate foes. There’s an art to an insult, and his enemies are masters of slinging mud.
Because the film deals less with the rise of Lincoln to the presidency and more with his historic challenges in maintaining the American union, Spielberg’s direction is also less sentimental and more objective than we are used to of late. To some that will be a disappointment; to others (like yours truly), it makes the film work in unexpected and daring ways. In the end, however, all of this may be for naught because Lincoln will not be remembered for its plot or as Spielberg’s finest directorial achievement.
Let me just be frank: Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln is the film, so much so that when everything else about the movie may be forgotten, it is his image that persists in the memory. The diligence with which he has crafted the character and the performance – from not only the voice and facial visuals but the very way in which he lifts his head and lays his wrist on his lap – is so perfect that you wonder whether it’s fair to even call this ‘acting’. I’ll let others settle this argument; one thing no one will be arguing over is Daniel Day-Lewis’s transcendence as Lincoln. It feels trivial to even bother to mention it, but it must go without saying that this year’s Oscar race for Best Actor is officially over. Just give him the award. NOW.