Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Steven Spielberg: Lincoln

Unfurling across national screens with the graceful stamina of a late-career master's stroke, Steven Spielberg's much-anticipated historical epic Lincoln has the strange distinction of being both a measured study in classic storytelling and the odd slog of a great director's letdown. For in pinpointing the accuracies of a celebrated presidency and decisive turning point in our country's history, Spielberg allows the dust to settle far too much.

Coming off the jubilant high of his triumphant double feature last year, the delightfully rambunctious adventure film The Adventures of Tin-Tin and one of his few works of shattering perfection, War Horse, Lincoln couldn't help but be anti-climactic. Despite perfection in all technical departments, and on the parts of his stellar cast all delivering career-high point performances, the mainstream maestro's ode to arguably our greatest president is studied, overlong, and dull.

Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones are all three hypnotic in the immersion of their respective roles - Field's conviction is mesmeric, and Day-Lewis' transformation is not surprising knowing his track record but stunning nonetheless.

Opening with a roar, we are reminded of Spielberg's ingenious choreography of his battle sequences in his masterful World War 2 opus, Saving Private Ryan. But the brutality and realism of these Civil War battle scenes and Lincoln's mysterious introduction, and complex symbolic dialogue with black and white soldiers, gives way to the cold, leaden pacing of the rest of the film.

It's as if the passion and vision of War Horse drained the director of the emotion and heart one of his most important projects needs to survive. Janusz Kaminski's camera work is some of his best with his perennial partner; this world feels lived in, the color drained of blood along with the country, dying from its fissures. The art director and set decorators expertly recreate the period, almost better than any previous record of the time; Joanna Johnston's costumes are equally measured and just right.

Michael Kahn's editing is thoughtful and paced; as the picture drags on, we can't help but remember that Spielberg is one of many helmers who often has trouble knowing when to end his pictures. John Williams' music score is magisterial and classic, in union with the spirit of the entire old-fashioned affair. One of Spielberg's most inspired touches is his surprisingly fresh take on Licoln's demise; other than that it all goes down predictably, though well-done.

As the credits rolled, I couldn't help but be disappointed; my hopes are that this picture endures, and will deepen upon multiple viewings - Spielberg deserves them. I didn't care for his A.I. Artificial Intelligence upon its release. In the past couple years, I've watched the picture several times and adore it now. For now, Lincoln is one of my least favorite Spielberg movies.

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