Even when filming scenes of chaos or carnage, there’s an everything-in-its-place precision to Steven Spielberg’s staging. In moments of stillness, you can almost hear the director whispering in an actor’s ear to shift a hair to hit a mark, hit the light for a close-up that will tell the viewer exactly how to feel. His is an old-fashioned style of moviemaking that can produce soaring entertainment or, alternately, a fussed-over theatricality. Minute to minute, Lincoln moves between these extremes.
First and certainly foremost: Master shape-shifter Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a monumental portrayal of a man so firmly monumented in our nation’s history. The first released trailer inspired an Internetwide sniggering over the actor’s decision to pitch Lincoln’s voice high and thin, as if he were already halfway to being a ghost. (Mea culpa: I sniggered, too.) But Day-Lewis inhabits the character bodily – the gray face and pained-stoop likeness is astonishing – and temperamentally, too, as he shifts to present different angles on the storied president, from formidable politician and Great Emancipator to keen wit, devoted father, and unhappy husband. On the subject of the latter: Lincoln, for all its grand-canvas ambitions, is at its chewiest when dramatizing Lincoln’s relationship with his nervous wife Mary, played by Field as a potent brew of bulldog and chipped bone-china teacup. Though in real life, Mary was a decade younger than her husband, Field is a decade older than Day-Lewis; it’s a canny casting maneuver on the part of Spielberg that communicates the sense of longtime partners pulling away from one another.
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