Lincoln is not the film I was expecting. The biopic so often exists as a broad tableau of an individual’s entire life that attempts to shove as much as possible into a single film. That’s the safe and expected route. Although I remain an unabashed fan of Steven Spielberg, he has been known to occasionally take the safe route. There is a direction this film could have gone in that although likely would have been fine, it would not have compared to the brilliance that is Lincoln. Based “in part” on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner decide that instead of a typical tableau the film shall focus on a very specific and short period in Lincoln’s life. This allows Lincoln to achieve a level of intimacy and nuance rarely afforded in biographical filmmaking, and also renders the film far more lively, rich, and witty then one could possible imagine.
Although it perhaps extends itself a bit too far in its denouement, Lincoln focuses almost entirely on January 1865, shortly after the president won re-election. This was a volatile time in our country which existed as a war torn and divided nation. The Civil War was reaching its inevitable end, and Lincoln’s focus shifted to the passing of the 13th amendment to the constitution, which would abolish slavery. Guised under this framework, much of Lincoln is devoted to illustrating the behind the scenes dealings of our country’s political process, and in particular what it takes for the House to pass an amendment. What’s striking about the way Lincoln unfolds is how similar and relevant it still seems today. Politics can be shady business, and Lincoln does not shy away from showing the backwards dealings and scheming. Thusly, Kushner structures the film as a series of conversations in various rooms. A playwright at heart, this could have been portentous business. Instead, the film almost plays out like a heist. Lincoln and his team are the underdogs that must secure the necessary additional votes from the Democratic party that will allow the 13th to pass. The dialogue is rich and highly literate, filled with language and wordplay that extends beyond the norm and becomes its own sort of poetry. It is exceedingly dense and witty, and as delivered by the overwhelmingly large and accomplished cast it achieves a texture and rhythm that is almost unnaturally compelling. The outcome of Lincoln’s quest for the 13th is well known, yet the tension still builds considerably and with great fun. Yes, this historical film about the life of a President is great fun.
As the political dealings unfold, Kushner and Spielberg are able to explore Mr. Lincoln with great depth and nuance. Lincoln was a storyteller, a man of great warmth and power, and quite stubborn too. The decisions Lincoln had to make in order to achieve the 13th are morally ambiguous, and refreshingly the film paints Lincoln as a flawed man. In his relationship with his wife and the varying ways in which he treats his sons we see Lincoln as a family man but one that struggles with balance. None of this would be possible without the considerable talents of Daniel Day-Lewis. To say that Day-Lewis is a phenomenal actor is an understatement. He inhabits each of his carefully chosen roles with the utmost dedication to the point that he transforms himself entirely. Day-Lewis not only bares a striking physical resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, but within five minutes we forget that we are watching an actor. This is Abraham Lincoln, plainly and simply. From his historically accurate high and composed voice with a mild Kentucky tinge, to his posture, gait, and gestures we see not an actor or a character, but a miraculous portrayal of one of the most important and revered human beings in our history. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln has great strength and power yet he is also warm and fatherly, glancing directly into the eyes of the audience and making an indelible connection.
It would be easy for Day-Lewis to outshine any actor that works opposite him, yet Sally Field more than holds her own as Mary Todd Lincoln and excels as a no-nonsense woman that supports her husband yet also struggles with the recent loss of her son. Field brings a perfect balance of power and vulnerability. Even better is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, who reveals himself to be the film’s beating heart. Jones is as passionate and compelling as he has ever been, both heartbreaking and curmudgeonly. As W.N. Bilbo, an operative hired to convince various Democrats to vote for the 13th, James Spader is hilarious and filled with life. It would be easy to single out any other number of terrific actors in this film, but it suffices to say that this is a committed and passionate ensemble that has come together to portray this important story of our nation’s history with conviction.
Spielberg resists all of his showier urges and instead deals in intimacy and restraint. This is as pulled back as I can recall Spielberg, and he allows the acting and the text to tell the story. This is a masterful feat because the film still has a rich tone and flawless flow. Spielberg’s touch is clear yet never oversteps. Collaborating with his usual technical team – composer John Williams, editor Michael Kahn, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski – the film is expectedly handsome. Instead of using a wealth of CG or grand establishing shots, Spielberg utilizes simple details and small moments to convey an accurate sense of time. This film feels wholly authentic, both in its time period and in its presentation of this great man and his quest to achieve his singular goal. What could have been claustrophobic is instead intimate and moving, as we see not only a portrait of a man but a display of the complexity, absurdity, and inspiring potential of our American political system. In the interest of the greater good, and perhaps with a little finagling, differences can be put aside in order to cooperate and make things happen. Thusly this film carries great relevance and importance in light of our staunchly divided political climate. We can look to it for inspiration, for food for thought, for affirmation that our political system can accomplish great things. Ah, the power of truly excellent filmmaking.
Last edited by SpikeDurden; 11-09-2012 at 02:32 AM..