Steven Spielberg has made a lot of historical epics in his career, but I don’t think he’s ever pulled off one like Lincoln.  Spielberg’s historical mode tends to skew towards the expansive, whether it’s the WWII carnage of Saving Private Ryan, the overwhelming cruelty of Schindler’s List, or the David O. Selznick-meets-fairy tale pomp behind Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple, and 2011’s underrated masterpiece War Horse.

You can’t blame him for going big.  From the start, Spielberg has used the cinema as a vessel for the most mythic obsessions; even his 1971 TV-movie Duel turned the cat-and-mouse pursuit between a hapless motorist and a vengeful trucker into a primal struggle of the greatest import.

You might expect Lincoln to work in the same way – besides detailing the character of our most iconic president, the film includes the political struggle to ratify the 13th amendment and the horrors of a still-bloody Civil War – but that’s not what Spielberg does.  He feints from the spectacle.  Barring a few quick, brutal scenes of warfare, Lincoln unfolds not on the grand scale but in a series of dark, cramped rooms.  Characters cluster around tables and desks, sparring verbally about the whole human experience: love, equality, betrayal, freedom, war, salvation, regret.

With Janusz Kaminski’s blue-cold cinematography washing out the surrounding environs, our focus shifts to the landscape of faces on display, and what a landscape it is.  Most Spielberg features, good as they are, don’t hinge on the actors, but Lincoln wouldn’t exist without its absurdly talented cast; besides Daniel Day-Lewis’ Academy Award-winning turn as Abraham Lincoln, the film includes Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, Gloria Reuben, Bruce McGill, Hal Holbrook, Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley, Lee Pace, Walt Goggins, David Costabile, S. Epatha Merkerson, Michael Stuhlbarg, Dale DeHaan, Adam Driver, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader.

The whole endeavor feels, at times, like a gloriously filmed stageplay, and that’s another thing that throws us.  A) Spielberg has never made a movie this static, and B) for a picture called Lincoln, the title character is but one piece of a larger ensemble.  This isn’t a biopic; Lincoln is a central figure during the end of the Civil War, but so are less immediately popular figures as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) or Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn).

And here’s where we see the greatest factor in the evolution of Steven Spielberg: Lincoln‘s screenwriter, Tony Kushner.  Best known for his kaleidoscopic, mammoth play Angels in America, Kushner is a rarity, an activist who never lets politics drown out his humanist leanings.  Kushner previously worked with Spielberg on Munich, and the result was The Beard’s best film since Schindler’s List.  Kushner embraced the thornier moral complications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, turning an impressive-but-rote thriller into something far more witty, allusive, and disturbing.

In adapting sections of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, Kushner has brought that same touch to Lincoln.  It’s not that the events in the movie are small, but Kushner presents them through the prism of his flawed characters.   As such, what Lincoln loses in geographical stature, it gains in emotional scope.  Part of why Day-Lewis’s work ranks among his finest, richest screen works is because Kushner lets him fill in the gaps between the Congressional wheeling-and-dealing.  As canny a government operator as Lincoln is – and some of the picture’s best scenes find Lincoln expertly manipulating the House of Representatives or enlisting the services of James Spader’s gloriously corrupt William Bilbo for the dirtiest political machinations – he’s also a man, trying to protect one son (Gulliver McGrath) from the emotional instabilities of a grieving mother (Field, who’s genuinely fearsome) and the other (Gordon-Levitt) from a war that’s near-guaranteed to destroy him.

The most resonant moments are the quiet ones, whether Lincoln is regaling his cabinet with long-winded, folksy stories they’ve heard a hundred times over, or talking with a stunned telegraph operator about the social relevance behind Euclidian geometry, and I credit Kushner for giving these beats equal weight as the conventionally dramatic ones.

Still, it’s important that we not underplay Spielberg’s individual achievements here.  The reason Lincoln plays like a new classic is due to his mastery of screen language.  A lesser film might drown in staginess, regardless of how enthralling are Kushner’s script and the cast, but Spielberg gives the proceedings a pace.  He lets scenes run in long takes, with quietly dynamic camera takes stitching them together.  I could watch Spielberg frame actors in doorways and flickering lights all day; visually, he’s conversing with the ghosts of John Ford and Orson Welles.

Plus, his populist leanings make him the best person to convey Kushner’s dialogue.  Spielberg and his longtime editor Michael Kahn know how to structure all this talk for maximum effect, so much so that Lincoln often plays like high comedy.  Lincoln’s propensity to ramble on is a great running gag, and Spader gets the film’s biggest laugh with a perfectly timed f-bomb.

The mix of humor, pathos, and politics is so delicately wrought, and were it not for an ending that goes on a little longer than it should (see also: Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Saving Private Ryan), Lincoln might be Spielberg’s best feature.  In throwing himself so vigorously from his comfort zone, Spielberg reveals shadings I never knew he possessed.  The director who made his name ignoring the proscenium arch now seems more comfortable than ever nestled beneath it.

Touchstone’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack looks better on HD than it did projected in theaters.  Kaminski’s beautiful photography contains lots of subtle temperature and color gradations, and his use of deep focus is wonderful.  The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also very good, though the extra channels aren’t terribly necessary – this is a quiet movie, by and large.

Features resemble the roster from the War Horse Blu-ray.  We get seventy-eight minutes of informative behind-the-scenes featurettes: “The Journey to Lincoln,” “A Historic Tapestry: Richmond, Virginia,” “In the Company of Character,” “Crafting the Past,” “Living with Lincoln,” and “In Lincoln’s Footsteps.”  Note – the last four are only available on the four-disc Blu-ray edition.

It’s a great package for a great movie.  Lincoln deserves to endure, both for its historical relevance as well as for its importance in the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg.

Lincoln streets on March 26th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Home Culture Movie Review: The Importance of LINCOLN for America and Steven Spielberg