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Review: ‘Lincoln’ smashes all other Spielberg films, roles cast to perfection

Courtesy of Dreamworks Pictures

Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” anchored by a stunning performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, is one of the master director’s finest films to date.

Concerning itself primarily with the months leading up to the passing of the 13th Amendment (and the president’s subsequent assassination), some critics have said “Lincoln” has a bit of mythmaking, for better or for worse.

This, however, can hardly be the case, or at least cannot be the whole case. That is to say, when it comes to President Abraham Lincoln, the myth is already there for many of those who approach the film.

Indeed, we can hardly look at a wall of an elementary school history class, or dig a handful of change out of our pockets, without seeing Lincoln’s face. We have certain ideas about who he was that extend beyond what he did (after all, didn’t the tallest kid with the deepest voice always get to play Lincoln in the school play?).

Instead of concerning itself with propagating our preconceived notions about the great leader and orator, Spielberg’s film (from a script by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner) picks the tougher battle – how do we make a legend human, or even relatable? And luckily for us, this film succeeds on every level.

Opening with a brutally depicted battle, “Lincoln” finds the president and the country at the proverbial crossroads. While his Emancipation Proclamation declared the slaves in the Confederacy to be free, Lincoln was compelled to go one step further and pass a constitutional amendment that would put an end to slavery forever.

The film presents the uphill battle fought by the president, his cabinet and members of Congress in turns equally elegant and sweeping, and deliberately stagey. The results are nothing short of mesmerizing.

Much has been made of the sprawling cast, and rightfully so. “Lincoln” is stocked with fantastic supporting players. Plucked from film, television and Broadway, Spielberg has cast even the smallest role to perfection.

Standouts include the shameless vote-getters trio of James Spader (providing comedic relief), John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson in the roles of W.N. Bilbo, Robert Latham and Richard Schell, respectively, as well as Michael Stuhlbarg as an on-the-fence representative of George Yeaman and David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward. Each man strikes the right balance of seriousness and humor.

Sally Field also does tremendous work as first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Still reeling from the death of her young son, the role could have skewed shrewish and overly emotional, but Field gives it just enough weight, holding her own against the colorful men.

As for the awards talk surrounding Tommy Lee Jones’ role as Thaddeus Stevens, it’s right on the money. Jones, so good in everything from “The Fugitive” (for which he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor) to “No Country for Old Men” (for which he was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor), is remarkable as the sharp-tongued, passionate representative.

Of course, without the proper lead, even while boasting the best supporting cast, the film would crumble. But that was never going to happen with Day-Lewis taking the role of Lincoln. Our greatest living actor gives another performance poised to become the stuff of legend. He embodies Lincoln with such charm and grace that it’s impossible to take your eyes off him whenever he’s on screen.

Day-Lewis exudes a fatherly warmth so far removed from his roles in “Gangs of New York” and “There Will Be Blood,” that he often appears to be another actor altogether. Of course, he’s just doing what he does best, leaving us with what may well be the performance of the year.

Production-wise, the film is flawless. Shot with great compositional care by longtime Spielberg-collaborator Janusz Kaminski, the warm, candlelit interiors of the White House occasionally recall Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” (or, to a lesser extent, Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon”).

But “Lincoln” doesn’t really look like any other film. By now, Spielberg’s style is so totally his own that an entire cinematic vocabulary exists in his films, and “Lincoln” is his best-looking film since “Munich.”

The score, composed by (who else?) John Williams, is also a triumph – never bombastic, and beautifully complementing the images on screen.

Which is not to make “Lincoln” out to be flawless. The play-like staging of some of the congressional debates lean a little too much toward the theatrical end, and there are pacing problems throughout the final third. Spielberg, too, doesn’t quite stick the landing, with the dénouement feeling a tad rushed.

But these are minor issues in the grand scheme of this great film. Spielberg’s passion is in every frame of this masterful new entry into an already staggering career. Led by Day-Lewis in the latest in an unparalleled string of turns, “Lincoln” is a new classic in historical cinema, and one of the very best films of the year.

Grade: A

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