Awash in a handsome, sensualized nostalgia, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln flirts with a dramatic solitude outside of his repertoire, briefly nurturing a muted profile of the American Civil War from droll discussion and hazy bedchambers. Daniel Day-Lewis follows suit, capturing the man behind the monument through hung head and restrained sorrow, never bending into impersonation or synthetic mannerism. His humanization of the Abraham Lincoln legend feels like a succinct coda to a momentous career, tarnished only by Spielberg’s inability to remain evenhanded, diluting any attempt at urbanity through false solemnity and trite grandiosity.
Drifting off topic like a sentimental drunk, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is far more reminiscent than present, decorating his diplomatic negotiations with riddles, quotes and jests, each standing in stark contrast to the gravity of the political climate and frankness of his advisors. Spielberg uses his emotional isolation to depict a life in extremis, forging a man of “semi-divine stature” before moonlight, eulogizing his achievements in the earnest recitation of Union soldiers and reverent glances of White House servants. Ironically, the strongest demurral to Lincoln’s piety stems from his own family, reflected in a son’s distaste for social class and wife’s overwhelming grief, which pools over into passive-aggression in the polite company of a White House gala.
Janusz Kaminiski delicately encapsulates Mary Todd’s (Sally Field) misery over a departed son into the mise en scène, morphing the sole candle flicker and scant rays of daylight in her boudoir into an eternal séance. His use of restrained lighting also repurposes organic spaces, using dusky blue sky as natural camouflage, alluding to the anonymity of battle by obscuring the faces of exhausted soldiers in charcoal shadow. Kaminski's troops are prisoners within the portrait, just like the weary Mrs. Lincoln, fenced off by acute angles and the stifling claustrophobia of hand-to-hand combat.
The narrative stride mirrors this restraint, diverting only in service of muddled montages, which repurpose bribery and deception as scoundrel’s adventure. Incapable of honing in on the studied pace provided by fascinating passages on presidential autocracy and legal duplicity, Steven Spielberg resorts to blockbuster cliché over deferential facsimile, obfuscating the artful endeavors of his script in favor of moralistic frenzy. His fits of comic relief are just as extraneous, reducing the staid gestures of cast and painterly focus of photographer into portentous wrapping paper on a tawdry gift. The profundity garnered through quiet exchanges, often whispered between forlorn parents and stoic generals, is smothered in crowd-pleasing melodrama, squandering an abundance of aesthetic beauty at the behest of awards and accolades.
Lincoln (Touchstone Pictures, 2012)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Doris Kearns Goodwin (book) and Tony Kushner (screenplay)
Photographed by Janusz Kaminski