Sunday, December 2, 2012
A Political Film For The Ages: Lincoln.
Movie Review: Lincoln
Director: Steven Spielberg
Reviewed: 1 December 2012
Wow. To see Daniel Day-Lewis acting is a cinematic event, and a performance from the actor who played Christy Brown, Hawkeye, Gerry Conlon, Bill The Butcher, and Daniel Plainview is a rare treat.
And Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our most beloved president, has yet to be rendered cinematically.
Adding director Steven Spielberg to the mix is intriguing but also risky because of Spielberg's difficulty handling more serious stories. Spielberg remains our most popular modern director, lending an air of excitement that such a populist is constructing such a challenging story.
However, the director of "Jaws," "Close Encounters," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" works with an innovative, dazzling screenplay from playwright Tony Kushner to construct "Lincoln," a film with as much to say about our world in 2012 as it does about the slice of January 1865 that it depicts. The screenplay and a focus on the telling of a meaty, complex, political story is what saves this film. Spielberg had to reign in his tendencies in order to keep the focus on Lincoln, the man in the White House, surrounded by his family, trapped by the public, consumed with his devotion to ending slavery through the political process before the ending of the war. There is one battle scene here, but Spielberg could have made this "Saving Private Ryan" set in the Civil War and doesn't. He is more keen to focus on Lincoln's curling up on the floor next to his youngest son whom he then carries to bed in a tender scene that communicates more than narration or speeches ever could. He focuses on the messiness of the political process and the way ideals have to be compromised in order to achieve anything truly great. It seems radical, but "Lincoln" shows us the world of politics with its passion and zeal as duplicitous, ugly, and vital.
To be clear, Spielberg made a film about Abraham Lincoln and does not have him read the Gettysburg Address, does not show any Civil War battles beyond the opening scene, does not show the actual reading of the vote of the amendment in question, does not show the signing of the treaty at Appomatox Courthouse, does not show his reelection in 1864, does not show his assassination, and only allows us a narrow glimpse into the president giving the famous Second Inaugural Address to close the film. He has constructed a film that is so unconventional in its treatment of a revered public figure that there's no other word for it but astonishing. The narrow focus on the few months in 1865 involving the amendment abolishing slavery has much to do with this film's success. It never overreaches.
As for Daniel Day-Lewis, he anchors the film with gravitas, humor, and weariness. The actor who is known for his physicality inhabits Lincoln with all of his complexity, making him a quieter, quirkier figure than I think I ever saw him. His grabbing of the hand of his Secretary of War while anxiously waiting word on an impending battle is one of my favorite moments. Lincoln's penchant for stories leads to many laughs in the film, yet the folksy stories uncover the past of the man, his values, and his ability to be two steps or two plays ahead of everyone in the film. Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and others deliver fantastic performances. The focus of the film on the passing of the amendment abolishing slavery necessitates showing less of Lincoln's relationship with Mary Todd (Sally Field) or his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and if I had a complaint against the film, it would be its lack of screen time or depth with both of those characters. However, there is something remarkable about seeing how open the White House used to be, with Lincoln cradling his youngest son in his arms while still dictating policy and hearing complaints from citizens who just show up at his door. He's a man, a father, a husband, the supreme military commander of the Union Army during a vicious struggle, and he's exhausted the entire film.
Ultimately, "Lincoln" resonates with more modern fights for equality. As it delves into the political theater of Washington and the world of Senate votes and compromises, Senators on both sides of the aisle decry giving African-Americans or women the right to vote. And now, here we are in 2012, with an African-American president and a female Secretary of State who had vied for the presidency. In twenty years, will we look back at some of the speeches and vitriol of this day with the same cringing?
The times, they are a changing, Bob Dylan sings, and "Lincoln" reminds us of the fervor of now must not prevent us from looking forward to the possibility of what the future can be. Spielberg ends the film with Lincoln reading these famous lines: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
What those words mean to me is a recommitment to democracy, to our process of working together, to our belief that binding up our disagreements and wounds is vital and necessary. We are a country of greatness, just as Lincoln says about himself, "clothed in immense power" that we can use to achieve greatness and kindness and peace. Those are words that can give us pause despite which side we supported in the last election or any election.
And, both North and South and West and East should agree in private and in public, Daniel Day-Lewis deserves his third Academy Award for Best Actor this winter for "Lincoln."
What a gift his performance is.