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.