Steven Spielberg has always shown a reverence for Orson Welles and “Citizen Kane” with his trademark use of light shining through chiaroscuro-style. Not surprisingly, he uses it effectively in “Lincoln.” Plus, there’s an early nod to “Kane” with a close-up of Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) through a mirror on the dresser. It’s indicative of the spatial divide between husband and wife, President and First Lady, while also linking them together spiritually. Indeed, the moment is a microcosm of what “Lincoln” is all about: repairing the great divide among people and a nation through a spiritual connection.
However, given its multi-layered exploration of an American legend and back to basics theatricality, I would argue that “Lincoln” represents Spielberg’s “Kane.” Not literally, of course, but as a cinematic model and as a sign of his great maturity as a director. After all, this is the first time that he’s devoted a movie to such an important historical figure and built everything around such a commanding performance. But then Daniel Day-Lewis brings out the best in everyone, including the talented ensemble cast, which serves as Spielberg’s Mercury Theater. No wonder Spielberg worked so diligently with screenwriter Tony Kushner to find the right angle (a political procedural about the battle over the 13th amendment to abolish slavery) with which to hook Day-Lewis. The result is like eavesdropping on the most tumultuous moment in our history while bringing the conflicted Abe closer to us.
“The other interesting thing is how at ease Tony and Daniel and Steven are with power, and how to express that power subtly and interestingly,” suggests production designer Rick Carter, who considers “Lincoln” the culmination of his decade-long encounter with “the nature of conscience and the Goya-esque disasters of war.” He cites “War of the Worlds,” “Munich,” “Avatar,” and “War Horse” as the other prime examples.
“And I like that balance of being at ease with power in Lincoln. It’s understated and overstated when it’s time to rise up and use its full force. He’s humanized yet remains extraordinary.”
Most of Spielberg’s movies are about the disruptive breakup of the family (especially as a result of the absent father), and he seems to have found its ultimate expression in “Lincoln.” The tug of war for freedom is personal and political, intimate and epic, with the 16th President serving as the ultimate paternal symbol. With his folksy charm and penchant for dirty jokes and funny anecdotes, Lincoln is the great persuader and a sagacious storyteller.
“He’s also weaving a web and it gets you thinking one thing and then he comes right into something else, and it’s so funny to see the reactions build with the other characters, just as they do with the audience,” Carter adds.
That’s why it’s refreshing to see Spielberg give way to great conversation to tell the story (courtesy of Kushner). He shows such visual and emotional restraint. Even during the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”-like tirades between Abe and Mary, he holds back until he reaches the breaking point and confesses his grief over the death of his young son, Willie. It makes the suspenseful vote in the House of Representatives all the more effective.
Meanwhile, I adore the quiet, tender moment when Lincoln sits down beside his sleeping son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), and caresses him before carrying him on his back to bed. Or when Lincoln gets inspiration from Euclid while conversing with an engineer and wrestling with the 13th amendment: “Things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other,” he suddenly realizes. “It’s self-evident.”
“When he talks about the Euclid, it’s the same thing as God,” Carter continues. “That’s where you’re deriving the sense of justice and fairness. And that’s that self-evident note. And now that builds to our time and it’s pretty amazing.”
Likewise, “Lincoln” was sometimes an emotional experience for cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who says being so close to the camera was like watching a play because the movie was relatively simple technologically — it was just tableaux. “I pulled the color out so it wouldn’t appear dated and to see the colors affected by the light shining through,” he suggests. Besides, people were paler.
“For a movie composed primarily of medium shots and close-ups, there’s more depth of field when Lincoln stands outside with Grant,” Kaminski adds. “There’s the discomforting reminder of the war happening outside the frame with the shadows of troops moving across empty space.”
It’s indicative of a looser, freer Spielberg at peace with his storytelling craft and directorial power. He’s come a long way from even “Schindler’s List,” the only other comparable movie in terms of historical importance and personal commitment.