Thursday January 31, 2013

HARRISVILLE, N.H.

Lincoln -- Perhaps the biggest complaint leveled against a director as lauded as Steven Spielberg is his affinity for sentimentality. After all, even an accomplishment as revered as "Saving Private Ryan" (1997), which featured some of the most intense battle scenes ever filmed, suffered from an unnecessary coda and a formulaic screenplay.

However, when the undeniably talented director has an equally gifted screenwriter in his corner, his visual genius is able to shine through.

For example, 2001’s "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" certainly benefited from Stanley Kubrick’s participation in the project, creating a fascinatingly schizophrenic film that addressed serious existential issues and left many Spielberg fans feeling much more uncomfortable than they were used to.

Not that Spielberg necessarily shies away from serious subject matter either, of course. It was 1985’s "The Color Purple" that first announced the director’s attempt to address serious issues like race in America. However it was also saddled with the director’s customary desire to pull punches and make material more palatable to a general audience.

On the other hand, a movie like "Lincoln" reveals how far the director has come. In fact, Tony Kushner’s screenplay helps elevate the movie beyond your usual Spielberg picture, providing a brilliant foundation for the two filmmakers to create a movie for the ages.

Displaying little of the war time action of which the director of "Saving Private Ryan" has proven capable, "Lincoln" opts to address more the character of the man himself. This is namely the political and personal battles the 16th president of the United States faced in perhaps our country’s greatest struggle as a nation. In the process the film becomes less a crowd-pleasing action picture and more a keenly observed historical document that, in the words of another president, is "like watching history written in lightning."

Rather than being a typical biographical picture, the story of "Lincoln" is concerned with only the final months of the president’s life, and acts as a detailed display of the political machinery at work to bring fundamental and important change to our nation. The passionate nature of the way the American politics operated during the era on display here may seem quaint to our 21st century cynical eyes, but it also effectively displays just what was at stake at this crucial period of our country’s history. Scene after scene displaying this process at work suggest this film is as far a Spielberg film has ever strayed from a blockbuster format, and the movie is all the more convincing for it.

It also may represent the farthest the director has strayed from employing emotional manipulation in his career. Even Sally Field’s emotional outbursts in her performance as Mary Todd Lincoln are more indicative of her character’s mental state, and are also tempered with Daniel Day-Lewis’ more reserved display that reveal the personal resolve of Abraham Lincoln. The emotional distance Spielberg maintains in one scene discussing their son’s death shows yet another side of the couple’s relationship without allowing it to become an obvious attempt to milk the audience for sympathy. The result is one of the most powerful scenes in the movie and shows how much Spielberg has matured as a director.

Daniel Daniel Day-Lewis once again proves himself an actor of unparalleled artistry, appearing to completely disappear in his role and deliver a monumental performance that transcends mere impersonation. By no means a showy portrayal, Day-Lewis’ genius lies in his ability to convey the character of Lincoln himself, employing a low-key intensity that is more in effective in revealing the man’s profound inner struggles rather than resorting to showy theatrics. There is no doubt that Lincoln himself commanded attention whenever he was present in a room, and Day-Lewis manages to use his own screen presence to display Lincoln’s personal charisma with a deliberate and forceful conviction.

Meanwhile, by forgoing an overly reverential treatment of an important historical figure, the filmmakers conspire to illustrate the more human elements of Lincoln’s nature, namely his preference for solitude, his passionate familial ties and his penchant for anecdotes laced with profundity. It all works to successfully bring a towering historical figure down to earth without diminishing his stature one iota.

Rated PG-13.

Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.