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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.

"He's also weaving a web and it gets you thinking one thing and then he comes right into something else, and it's so funny to see the reactions build with the other characters, just as they do with the audience," Carter adds.

That's why it's refreshing to see Spielberg give way to great conversation to tell the story (courtesy of Kushner). He shows such visual and emotional restraint. Even during the "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"-like tirades between Abe and Mary, he holds back until he reaches the breaking point and confesses his grief over the death of his young son, Willie. It makes the suspenseful vote in the House of Representatives all the more effective.

Meanwhile, I adore the quiet, tender moment when Lincoln sits down beside his sleeping son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), and caresses him before carrying him on his back to bed. Or when Lincoln gets inspiration from Euclid while conversing with an engineer and wrestling with the 13th amendment: "Things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other," he suddenly realizes. "It's self-evident."

"When he talks about the Euclid, it's the same thing as God," Carter continues. "That's where you're deriving the sense of justice and fairness. And that's that self-evident note. And now that builds to our time and it's pretty amazing."

Likewise, "Lincoln" was sometimes an emotional experience for cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who says being so close to the camera was like watching a play because the movie was relatively simple technologically -- it was just tableaux. "I pulled the color out so it wouldn't appear dated and to see the colors affected by the light shining through," he suggests. Besides, people were paler.

"For a movie composed primarily of medium shots and close-ups, there's more depth of field when Lincoln stands outside with Grant," Kaminski adds. "There's the discomforting reminder of the war happening outside the frame with the shadows of troops moving across empty space."

It's indicative of a looser, freer Spielberg at peace with his storytelling craft and directorial power. He's come a long way from even "Schindler's List," the only other comparable movie in terms of historical importance and personal commitment.

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

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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.