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Immersed in Movies: Raising 'Kane' in 'Lincoln'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 16, 2012 at 3:00PM

Steven Spielberg has always shown a reverence for Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane" with his trademark use of light shining through chiaroscuro-style. Not surprisingly, he uses it effectively in "Lincoln." Plus, there's an early nod to "Kane" with a close-up of Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally) through a mirror on the dresser.
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Lincoln, window
'Lincoln'

Steven Spielberg has always shown a reverence for Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane" with his trademark use of light shining through chiaroscuro-style. Not surprisingly, he uses it effectively in "Lincoln." Plus, there's an early nod to "Kane" with a close-up of Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) through a mirror on the dresser. It's indicative of the spatial divide between husband and wife, President and First Lady, while also linking them together spiritually. Indeed, the moment is a microcosm of what "Lincoln" is all about: repairing the great divide among people and a nation through a spiritual connection.

However, given its multi-layered exploration of an American legend and back to basics theatricality, I would argue that "Lincoln" represents Spielberg's "Kane." Not literally, of course, but as a cinematic model and as a sign of his great maturity as a director. After all, this is the first time that he's devoted a movie to such an important historical figure and built everything around such a commanding performance. But then Daniel Day-Lewis brings out the best in everyone, including the talented ensemble cast, which serves as Spielberg's Mercury Theater. No wonder Spielberg worked so diligently with screenwriter Tony Kushner to find the right angle (a political procedural about the battle over the 13th amendment to abolish slavery) with which to hook Day-Lewis. The result is like eavesdropping on the most tumultuous moment in our history while bringing the conflicted Abe closer to us.

"The other interesting thing is how at ease Tony and Daniel and Steven are with power, and how to express that power subtly and interestingly," suggests production designer Rick Carter, who considers "Lincoln" the culmination of his decade-long encounter with "the nature of conscience and the Goya-esque disasters of war." He cites "War of the Worlds," "Munich," "Avatar," and "War Horse" as the other prime examples.

"And I like that balance of being at ease with power in Lincoln. It's understated and overstated when it's time to rise up and use its full force. He's humanized yet remains extraordinary."

Most of Spielberg's movies are about the disruptive breakup of the family (especially as a result of the absent father), and he seems to have found its ultimate expression in "Lincoln." The tug of war for freedom is personal and political, intimate and epic, with the 16th President serving as the ultimate paternal symbol. With his folksy charm and penchant for dirty jokes and funny anecdotes, Lincoln is the great persuader and a sagacious storyteller.

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Lincoln, Steven Spielberg, Steven Spielberg, Features


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.