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Even when filming scenes of chaos or carnage, there’s an everything-in-its-place precision to Steven Spielberg’s staging. In moments of stillness, you can almost hear the director whispering in an actor’s ear to shift a hair to hit a mark, hit the light for a close-up that will tell the viewer exactly how to feel. His is an old-fashioned style of moviemaking that can produce soaring entertainment or, alternately, a fussed-over theatricality. Minute to minute, Lincoln moves between these extremes.
First and certainly foremost: Master shape-shifter Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a monumental portrayal of a man so firmly monumented in our nation’s history. The first released trailer inspired an Internetwide sniggering over the actor’s decision to pitch Lincoln’s voice high and thin, as if he were already halfway to being a ghost. (Mea culpa: I sniggered, too.) But Day-Lewis inhabits the character bodily – the gray face and pained-stoop likeness is astonishing – and temperamentally, too, as he shifts to present different angles on the storied president, from formidable politician and Great Emancipator to keen wit, devoted father, and unhappy husband. On the subject of the latter: Lincoln, for all its grand-canvas ambitions, is at its chewiest when dramatizing Lincoln’s relationship with his nervous wife Mary, played by Field as a potent brew of bulldog and chipped bone-china teacup. Though in real life, Mary was a decade younger than her husband, Field is a decade older than Day-Lewis; it’s a canny casting maneuver on the part of Spielberg that communicates the sense of longtime partners pulling away from one another.
Alas, they are but two in a cast teeming with recognizable faces, all clammering for screentime. I’m not sure what’s gained by giving familiars two-minute-long snatches when 90 seconds are wasted just acclimating to, say, Lukas Haas in artfully dirtied Union garb. In adapting historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Tony Kushner, the acclaimed playwright (Angels in America) and Spielberg’s Munich scripter, stitches together history lesson and TV procedural in this detailing of Lincoln’s tooth-and-nail struggle to find votes in the House to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. Some actors break through the built-in amber of an historical epic – John Hawkes and James Spader enliven the picture as political operatives, while David Straithairn feels authentically of the age as Lincoln’s cabinet member, William Seward – while other actors more innately contemporary, like Tommy Lee Jones (no shaking his Texas accent), bully through by dint of personality. But the bygone manner of speaking – formal and florid – doesn’t come easily to all the actors, and the result is like the disconnect you see in inferior Shakespeare productions: The mouths are moving, but the eyes don’t always connect with the meaning. No worries, Spielberg’s gonna spell it out for you anyway.
Lincoln, Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Straithairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, John Hawkes, Gloria Reuben, Lee Pace, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris