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In a nation divided by war and the strong winds of change, President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) pursues a course of action designed to end the war, unite the country, and abolish slavery. With the moral courage and fierce determination to succeed, his choices during this critical moment will change the fate of generations to come. (From Disney’s official synopsis)

 Lincoln
The life and times of Abraham Lincoln come to the big screen with a whole lot of baggage. Not only is he one of the largest cultural icons in American history, his story has already been committed to film on several occasions, including adaptations by the likes of D.W. Griffith and John Ford. Most filmmakers would risk ruining the subject with a lack of the appropriate pomp and circumstance, but someone of Steven Spielberg’s skill-set immediately brings about assumptions of over-emphasizing the pageantry over the truth. Really, though, we shouldn’t be surprised that Spielberg’s version of the Lincoln legend is so intimate and enclosed. Despite the breadth of subject matter in his filmography and a penchant for family-friendly science fiction, Spielberg is an eclectic filmmaker and has made a name for himself telling more down to Earth, true stories in more recent years and most of these films have been measured, condensed versions of unwieldy subject matter. Working from Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg enlisted screenwriter Tony Kushner, who had helped simmer Munich down to a workable, human story (along with Eric Roth). Kushner reportedly returned with a phonebook-sized script, leading the team to make the most important decision of the entire production – centering almost the entire film around a brief period where the President used his executive power to push the Thirteenth Amendment through the House or Representatives. This does make the simple title, Lincoln, a bit misleading, but I’ll take it for the sake of a more manageable movie.

What I like most about Kushner’s script, besides the fact that it tells a very specific piece of an otherwise very long story, is the surprisingly frank dialogue qualities. The melodrama is an inherent part of the subject matter, so it doesn’t need scene after scene of big, ‘Oscar-moment’ speeches to sell the story – it needs a steady stream of comparably natural conversation (less-than-perfect line readings, characters speaking over each other or attempting to change the subject, for example). The challenge then isn’t about how to make history understandable, but about how to make a movie about passing law not look like a History Channel reenactment. For the sake of contrast, I suggest watching Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, which tracks the trial following Lincoln’s assassination in the most brain-meltingly boring manner possible. I suppose Lincoln could be accused of sitting too firmly in the middle ground to earn universal praise. There’s plenty of the Spielberg brand of sentiment and, despite a powerful effort to humanize the legend of Mr. Lincoln, there’s nothing revisionist about this version of history. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is every inch the lovable, earthy saint we’ve been told he was since we were five years old and his political chess-playing raises some eyebrows, but we never question his saintly intent to free slaves from their bondage. The value of the performance and the portrayal is found in its fragility, along with the fact that the people around him are occasionally just as annoyed by his folksy qualities as the audience.

 Lincoln
The intricacies of the tale aren’t dumbed-down for an impatient mainstream audience, either, meaning little space is wasted on repeating political bargaining tactics or reinstating character motivations. Spielberg makes fantastic use of montage and humour to give the story something of a tonal texture – something I found sorely lacking in his last film, War Horse. Still, there’s plenty of fat on the bone that really could’ve been cut, most of it revolving around pieces of the President’s private life. Taking the time to track the intersecting lives of Robert Todd and Mary Todd Lincoln help craft the title character and might make interesting movies all their own someday, but here they divert attention, because, otherwise, Kushner and Spielberg sharpen their focus so hard on the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment. The all-star cast, which is impressive, is so overwhelmed by familiar faces that it verges on distracting. This is to be expected from a high-profile historical drama, but not from Spielberg, who has made a habit of hiring ‘up and coming’ actors and actresses to fill-out the bulk of his supporting cast over the years. The overall performances, though, again, very impressive, are also generally within the realms of ‘type’ for most of these actors (except Day-Lewis, who has built the second half of his career on not having a type). The accolades are earned (yes, especially Day-Lewis), but I found I enjoyed the generally under-discussed performances of James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawks the most. I could’ve watched an entire movie revolving around the three of them.

 Lincoln

Video


One of my friends (I apologize, because I can’t remember which one) saw Lincoln and said he/she thought Spielberg might need to get away from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Now that I’ve actually seen the film, I’m inclined to agree, though perhaps it’s Kaminski that needs to get away from Spielberg for a bit. Not only has the duo worked together on every single Spielberg-directed movie since Schindler’s List, but Kaminski has only made five non-Spielberg movies since Lost World: Jurassic Park. Both parties could do with a break to roll their way out of the groove they’ve steadily worked themselves into. The image here is undoubtedly gorgeous, but is also dimly lit with deep shadows, harshly cut contrasts, a limited colour palette, and smoky lens-flares. So, it’s more of the same, but very pretty.

Complaints on creative ruts aside, this Blu-ray release is spectacular and maybe as close to perfect as could be expected from the purposefully gritty-looking material. Lincoln continues the semi-recent theme of Spielberg framing his movies in 2.35:1, which is clearly the ideal framing for the subject matter (even though there isn’t an excess of widescreen vistas or David Lean-like scope) and is presented in full 1080p. Detail levels are outrageously sharp, from the intricacies of skin and hair textures, to deep-set background patterns, and even the dusty clouds of diffusion Kaminski uses to separate planes in wider-shots. You can count the flecks of film grain along with the flecks of dust as they float through the frame. Perhaps more importantly, the clarity extends to sharpen the tiny highlights that define the characters against the darkest backdrops, which make up the majority of the film. The limited palette, which revolves mostly around sepias/browns and Yankee blues, featuring un-banded gradients and consistent hue qualities. Greens and reds are less common, but tend to punch things up nicely. The thick blacks do tend to absorb the hues around them, but not entirely at the risk of deep blues and browns. The outdoor, daylight sequences are not as impressive as the impressive as the darker scenes, because the harsh whites turn from simple highlights to the background base and blow out enough to make the image something approaching unattractive. The film itself also looks grungier at its brightest, including minor issues like edge haloes along the blackest edges and a bit of colour bleeding.

 Lincoln

Audio


Lincoln is not a war film, but there is some war footage, specifically a brutal opening sequence that depicts a water-logged battle, giving the likes of Gary Rydstrom and Ben Burtt a brief chance to show off before being limited by the restraint that defines the bulk of this DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. The majority of the multi-channel effort is reserved for brief scenes of outdoor travels and the uproar of an arguing congress. Outside of this, the track is limited in its ambience (perhaps a few rain storms and other nature sounds), but is arely entirely dry or empty. I would suggest that the centered dialogue is perhaps pitched a bit too loud, but the clarity of the vocal performances and their natural warmth make it difficult to complain about slight imbalances in volume – especially considering that the vast majority of the film is made up of centered dialogue. Speaking of tired Speilbergian pairings, John Williams’ Oscar-nominated score is absolutely forgettable and generic, though works pretty well while acting ‘folksy’ over montage sequences. As in the case of Saving Private Ryan, the music is minimized, but still creeps in to ruin things with unneeded sentimentality at inopportune moments. It certainly sounds good on the track, both in its more ‘heroic’ moments and when it slides under the softer discussion. I just didn’t like it very much.

 Lincoln

Extras


This collection’s rather sizable collection of extras begins on disc one with The Journey to Lincoln (9:20, HD), a relatively brief series of interviews with the cast and crew about the inspiration behind the film, including Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s book and the process of whittling down the story of Lincolns life to a palatable movie length. Also on disc one is A Historic Tapestry: Richmond, Virginia (4:00, HD), a brief look at the production’s filming on location in the former heart of the Confederacy.

This brings us to disc two where the bulk of the extras are located, including:
  • In the Company of Character (10:10, HD), a look at casting and the actors’ processes that allowed them to capture legendary historical figures.
  • Crafting the Past (10:40, HD), concerning the film’s production design, set decoration, costume design, and make-up – and the insane detail that went into all four.
  • Living with Lincoln (27:00, HD), a more substantial featurette that covers the historical lineage/significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Spielberg’s challenges telling a story with words (rather than images like he usually does), his work with the actors, and Kiminski’s photography.
  • In Lincoln’s Footsteps (16:40, HD), which wraps things up with a look at the film’s editing, Williams’ score, sound design (including recording the sound of Lincoln’s actual watch).


Interview subjects throughout the extras include Spielberg, producer Katheleen Kennedy, production designer Rick Carter, author Doris Kearns Goodwin, screenwriter Tony Kushner, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Virginia Film Office director Andy Edmunds, Virginia Tourism Board CEO Rita McClenny, costume designer Joanne Johnston, editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams, and actors Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Gloria Reuben, Jeremy Strong, Joseph Cross, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawks, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Julie White, Michael Stuhlbarg, Colman Domingo, Byron Jennings, Richard Topol, and S. Epatha Merkerson.

 Lincoln

Overall


Lincoln is the kind of ‘expected masterpiece’ that’s difficult to get too excited over. Its finest values revolve largely around the way Steven Spielberg has limited himself in terms of storytelling structure and style. It’s a calm, sometimes melancholic version of a story that could’ve easily turned into a chest-thumping, immodest mess. This Blu-ray release features a wonderfully sharp and filmic 1080p transfer, a low-key, well-measured DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and a decent collection of behind-the-scenes material – though I’m not sure I can justify the extra expenditure on this special edition version. The second disc of special features just isn’t that impressive.

Lincoln
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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