The opening scenes of Lincoln are cleverly directed to create a certain “image”. Spielberg frames our first view of Lincoln ingeniously. In the opening we are shown the man of history and legend, tall and fatherly, sitting on a pulpit observing the aftermath of a bloody battle, and speaking sagely. The gambit of Spielberg's film is to deconstruct this perception of Lincoln, to “humanize” him. The screenplay is intelligent, it is subtle, and it is in the hands of an erudite filmmaker. At its heart, this film is a biography, not in the conventional sense, but rather it chooses to narrow its focus on the final months of the president's life and explore his character intimately. . I've seen criticisms suggesting that Spileberg depicts Lincoln as a “demi-god”, as the man on the “five-dollar bill”. That's one critique that I don't quite understand. The film's presentation of the character is cloaked in shades of grey: Lincoln is proven to have dubious morals, suggesting the use of underhand tactics to secure the votes. Even the equality and freedom of the African-Americans is not shown to be Lincoln's goal, he flat out tells his housekeeper, “I think I can get used to you.” A Christ-like portrayal indeed....
I think that the depiction of Lincoln here is a mite subtler than what people are familiar with, especially from Hollywood. Lincoln is often shown sitting parently, speaking in grand metaphors. Yet, the film also portrays him in a negative light. Lincoln has numerous examples in its study which suggests a man who is far from divine. In one scene, he shouts at his wife, damning her grief and threatening to send her to a mental institution. He slaps his son. He is shown to be somewhat arrogant. I would not consider that to be hagiography. Those moments that seem to border on it, I think are chosen very specifically. The lamp flare transition towards the end is a return to the opening scene, a reminder of what history would transform this man into.
Lincoln is very different from Spielberg's usual approach, and shows him to be far more restrained as a director. It feels different, unlike anything he's created before: it's a testament to his versatility as a storyteller. Spielberg's takes are very long, many lasting well over a minute in length, and bring the central focus onto the performances. What's interesting is that despite the simplicity of the style, Spielberg does not fall into the trap of merely being a “point-and-shoot” director. He remains a visual artist, utilizing intelligent misc-en-scene. The approach is unobtrusive, yet even within this restraint the Spielbergian touches (moody silhouettes, reflection shots, framed through objects) can still be noticed.
On the note of intimacy, it brings up a complaint I'm seeing thrown around regarding Lincoln: it ignores the southern perspective. I think this is a nebulous point. The film does not have the scope to encompass a detailed view of the south, and quite frankly, this is not the story to do so. There have been other films which portray the south in the war, this film is about Abraham Lincoln, the man. Every aspect of Lincoln feels reeled in, Williams' score is even less bombastic than it was on Munich, the style is very soothing and gentle. His focus is on piano and acoustic guitar, flutes and diminutive strings.
So there are my musings on it. I think Spielberg's “Lincoln” is a fine film. It is subtle, intelligent and contemplative, and one of the most interesting pieces of the year. The film is about the shades of grey of Lincoln's character, though not the extremities that people seem to demand of it. Sure, we don't see Lincoln committing any truly heinous acts, but is that the only way to achieve moral complexity by showing someone rape and then, maybe, have a few regrets about it? Lincoln presents the man as a person, as a human, not as an idol, nor as a monster. It succeeds at being both a Hollywood Period Drama and a perspicacious character study. A rare balance which takes great skill to maintain.