Daniel Day-Lewis plays our sixteenth president in 'Lincoln' (+video)
'Lincoln' could be more daring but shines a light on the backroom shenanigans that went into abolishing slavery.
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Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is the spiritual center of the film, but he’s ringed by a multitudinous cast of characters, including David Strathairn as trusted Secretary of State William Seward; Sally Field as ramrod-tough, clinically depressed first lady Mary Todd; and, most scene-stealingly, Tommy Lee Jones as the incendiary, imperially grumpy abolitionist Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.Skip to next paragraph
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Whenever Jones is on screen, the film’s energy level kicks up several notches, an indication, I think, that Spielberg otherwise overdoses on directorial decorum. Without any obvious opportunities for cinematic pyrotechnics – the scenes of battle and mayhem are few – he goes in for a studied, golden-age-of-Hollywood approach. We see lots of talking heads in well-appointed halls and gloomy chambers. The camerawork is relatively stationary. (“Amistad,” which also suffered from stasis, had more movement.) Spielberg is so determined not to goose this narrative about the fate of human dignity that he damps down his best strength: his ability to make history seem contemporaneous through the sheer verve of storytelling.
Part of the problem, of course, is all these famous actors strutting around in wigs and beards and bonnets. But that might not have been an impediment if the characters were brought more vividly, more rudely, to life.
The marital rift scenes between Lincoln and Mary reach for gravitas, but too often they have the effect of making Lincoln seem more henpecked than hounded. Only in Jones’s performance do we glimpse what this movie might have been – a deadly serious burlesque about matters of great moment.
Spielberg’s films have often, if indirectly, been about the consequences of absent fathers on a family. There are times in “Lincoln” when our not-always-entirely honest Abe is, in a sense, absent to himself. In some of the film’s most mysteriously moving sequences, he appears while in mixed company to suddenly waft into some dark and private precinct. When Spielberg allows these silences – when, for example, he simply shows Lincoln slowly sauntering away from us down an unpeopled corridor – the film achieves a spooky eminence. Suddenly it becomes more than a history lesson, however well crafted and researched. It becomes a meditation on the unknowability of great men, of all men. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage, and brief strong language.)