A few minutes into director Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, immediately following the notoriously awkward scene between the 16th president of the United States and a pair of African-American Union soldiers, is a brief moment of horror expressionism that greatly informs the remainder of the film. Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), enveloped in stark blackish-blue hues, is standing at the head of a small boat that’s rapidly heading forward into a mysterious nightmare emptiness. Afterward, we’re in Lincoln’s private chambers as he describes this dream to his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), who eventually suggests that it’s a vision of his role in the forthcoming political battle to pass the 13th constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. This scene could be read as either an arbitrary acknowledgment of Lincoln’s documented interest in psychic phenomena or a brief opportunity for Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński to reprise their watery fishbowl motif from Minority Report, but it really serves the more interesting, ambitious purpose of establishing Lincoln as a comedy of the narcissism that binds prophecy with political policy.
Spielberg’s detractors, who’ve predictably discounted Lincoln as sentimental white-elephant Oscar bait, seem to have overlooked the film’s propulsive satiric drive. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is an intelligent and deeply weird man who has the political wiliness to present those traits in such a manner as to keep his allies and opponents continually off balance. In the beginning of the film, Lincoln decides that he’ll push the 13th amendment through the House of Representatives before the commencement of his second term for reasons that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner never pretend to entirely fathom. While it’s suggested, convincingly, that Lincoln’s urgency was driven out of fear that the inevitable resolution of the Civil War would undermine the amendment’s support, the filmmakers also suggest that Lincoln’s ego demands this achievement. “Cloaked in power,” this president sees himself as a prophet who will not be stifled.
Of course, Lincoln’s egotism is, to put it lightly, ultimately justified, and that beautiful irony imbues the film with an ambiguous, almost farcical power. Lincoln benefits from a friction that’s typical of nearly all of Spielberg’s films following Schindler’s List. The filmmaker is clearly drawn to the iconography and clean-cut morals of tall tales, and he still appears to self-consciously yearn, despite his unbelievable success, to be a great entertainer. But Spielberg, as he’s directly admitted in many interviews, also wants to be seen as a major artist, and he has the awareness to understand that his propensity for audience-pleasing emotional uplift, if it’s at odds with the subject matter’s logic, has the possibility to earn him the kind of derisive reactions that greeted films such as Amistad and The Terminal, among others.
Kushner’s script is an exhilarating verbal tapestry that affords Spielberg the best of both worlds. Lincoln often appears in the film as the irresistible monument to folksy decency that we know from the simplified myths of our school history books, and Spielberg exploits these scenes for all their iconic worth, often visualizing the president as a ghostly totem burdened by the secret knowledge of his pivotal destiny in the story of American reform. But that image is just as often subverted with a sly change of the president’s expression, or a nearly throwaway line of dialogue that subtly parodies the Lincoln iconography as the put-on of a brilliant leader who is, by necessity, part flim-flam man.
Lincoln is an anatomy of process in the tradition of several Otto Preminger films, and it often spins dark humor from the implication that a piece of truly miraculous legislation was passed, by the skin of its teeth, because a number of bickering politicians in the House were too concerned with lining their private pocketbooks to properly honor their deeply ingrained prejudices. The film, which Spielberg stages with a breathless sense of pace and a characteristically impressive, intuitive sense of composition, often celebrates the politicians of Lincoln’s era, not for the purity of their intention, but for the obviousness of their avarice, a notion that, true or not, is amusing and resonant. Social progress could be enacted with greater ease in the 1860s than the 2010s, the film implies, because bribes were offered and accepted with greater directness and precision. In the tradition of many Spielberg films, Lincoln is ultimately a testament to the primal satisfactions of unceasing momentum, which, regardless of its satirical intentions, positions the film as a seductive alternative to the tales of political gridlock that currently fill most newspapers almost every day.
The transfer boasts superb color richness and clarity, particularly the earthy blues, greens, and grays that dominate the film’s aesthetic. Image texture is also consistently impressive, as one can vividly discern the fibers in the clothing, the splinters in the floorboards, and the tattered wallpaper that’s going to seed. The 7.1 mix preserves the immersive dimensions of the film’s deceptively complex sound arrangements. The subtle ticking of clocks can be detected in many scenes of intense discussion, as well as the proper spatial relationships between speakers in scenes that sometimes feature as many as a hundred people murmuring or moving about. A welcome reminder that "talky" movies can be more cinematically astute than the dunderhead action movies that routinely glut theaters.
The six featurettes offer little aside from the typical EPK-friendly banalities that testify to the joys of mounting a film as culturally significant as Lincoln. "Living with Lincoln," which provides a general overview of the film’s production, is probably the best of the group, but all of them are skippable, which is a shame considering the stories that could probably be told of the film’s long gestation period.
The lame extras are disappointing, but Steven Spielberg’s quietly subversive political comedy receives an otherwise superlative transfer.