Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lincoln: Spielberg's Annual History Lesson

     It's extremely obvious to every serious movie-goer that Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest living actor. His ability to fully enter a character's mannerisms and psyche (he even stays in character throughout the entire movie shoot when he's not on camera) with ease is awe-inspiring and always fun to watch. So when Day-Lewis was announced as the titular star in Steven Spielberg's historical and fair Lincoln, it came as no surprise: of course he was cast as Lincoln. Of course he will be totally indistinguishable from the 16th President of the United States. Of course--during awards season--he will sweep up plenty of Best Actor statuettes. It's all so obvious and predictable, and it's...true. Day-Lewis, shedding much of his normal ferocity and anger (like he displayed in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood), becomes Abraham Lincoln, high-pitched voice, tall stature, intelligence and all. And though the film seems like it could have played late at night on the History Channel with a no-name cast and crew, Day-Lewis's performance (and a couple others, namely Sally Field portraying Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd) solidifies this film as a must-see, even though the climax is obvious and the theater-esque direction (most of the film takes place only in a couple of different rooms) makes it--for me--a once watch.
     Other than the basics, before seeing Lincoln, I never knew that much about Lincoln. This is assuming that his portrayal is accurate, which is a statement that most historians tend to agree with. Tony Kushner's screenplay is full of little details that Day-Lewis brings to life with great respect: a plainspoken nature that the common folk could relate to, a love of telling stories that have a pertinent lesson or moral at the end, his own horror of a dead child, his unrelenting fortitude on the issue of abolishing slavery. The story is only a small part of the man's life: it takes place during his final months alive as he tries to pass the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives. But it's powerful and emotional. And melodramatic in places, too--this is a 21st Century Spielberg film after all. Remember last year's War Horse? This is a director that pulls at the heartstrings as much as possible.
     All of the performances in Lincoln are predictably stellar. Sally Field steals the show as Lincoln's wife, a woman who has suffered an incredible amount of physical and emotional pain and sometimes takes it out on the men in her life. She is funny and heartbreaking, and she displays a ferocious insanity at times that will surely be recognized at the end of the year. Secretary of State William Seward is played by David Strathairn, a man who is always on Lincoln's side even when his opinion differs from the President. Another great performance is Tommy Lee Jones portraying Rep. Stevens, who will go to just about any length to abolish slavery. The rest of the cast: too many great names to mention, and they all play their part with typical excellence, however small or large that part may be.

     The film starts a bit slow, but it builds to inevitable well-acted courtroom scenes that showcase how divided the nation was during this time of war and slave ownership. Lincoln needed a certain number of votes from undecided (or easily swayed) House voters to pass his crown achievement 13th Amendment. Lincoln will do just about anything for these votes, and he feels that his Presidency is all for naught without passing this important Amendment that will change the course of history. Spielberg does a good job of showing us that backroom political dealings and manipulations are not just a part of modern politics. These things were happening--though in a different way--150 years ago. A person's vote can be changed by a variety of means.
     Insults fly from every angle during the court scenes. If only some of these tactics could be used today! It would make CSPAN must-see T.V. Lincoln runs into a major problem just as he's on the cusp of passing the Amendment. There are talks of peace and the war ending, but if the war ends even slightly prematurely (and even though it would save the lives of thousands of young soldiers and the horrific pain that their families would feel) all of the work that he has done on his prized political possession would come crashing down, because ending slavery with the 13th Amendment would mean ending the war anyway.
     If you go into Lincoln expecting epic Civil War battles echoing another Spielberg historical epic, Saving Private Ryan, you might walk away disappointed. This isn't a film about a gigantic war campaign. It's a film about a different type of campaign: a theatrical movie about speech and discussions that involve changing minds and overcoming prejudices. Day-Lewis's performance is subdued and un-showy, and although it was awesome, I wouldn't call it the best of the year: I'd give that honor to Joaquin Phoenix in The Master or John Hawkes in The Sessions. Lincoln is a history lesson, but I mean that in the best sense possible. In Spielberg, you have a teacher that is funny and entertaining, a teacher that masks learning with a wonderful story. But, as great as Lincoln is during most of its run time, occasionally I still had the feeling I was sitting in a desk at school, waiting for the next burst of excitement.     (B+)

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