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Spielberg and Day-Lewis, at the top of their forms, get history thrillingly right
Lincoln is not your typical presidential biopic, and thank god for that. Do we need to see baby Abe swaddled with Pa and Ma in their Kentucky log cabin? His on-again-off-again courtship of Mary Todd? His work as a prairie lawyer, initiation into politics, an insinuation of his homosexuality? No: You reveal the man’s character by exploring, bone-deep, the means and methods of his greatest legacy.
Despite collecting nearly 400 books on Lincoln and writing an initial draft of 500 pages, screenwriter and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angels in America Tony Kushner didn’t simply want to hit the highlights of the 16th U.S. President’s life and career. So he and director Steven Spielberg (in their second collaboration following the 2005 Oscar-nominated Munich) began by focusing on the period of September 1863 to January 1864, and eventually limiting that focus to the final four months of Lincoln’s life. And what a four months they were.
Lincoln has just won re-election, and the war has turned in the Union’s favor. But Lincoln, and the Capital, are in turmoil, and the beleaguered president fiercely struggles to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery before the war ends. The question that permeates the film, which is played out in dark, wooden chambers and muddy, earthen streets, is: Does the freedom of black people trump peace with the South (and the continuous carnage of hundreds of white soldiers)? Is passing the Amendment worth the prolonging of the war?
This is political thriller and history lesson rolled into one – and the result is the best kind of presidential biography, after all. This is not the expected cynical view of politics, but a vision of a democracy that is noble, if imperfect, even when it its maddeningly mundane and morally righteous. Kushner’s dense, literary passages paint vivid and persuasive pleas by early lobbyists (the feisty trio of James Spayder, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) as they cleverly manipulate twenty unsuspecting Democrats into voting for the Amendment; perfectly pitched rejoinders by the silver-tongued abolitionist, Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (a delightfully irascible and affecting Tommy Lee Jones – look for him come Oscar time); the resentment verging on hysteria of a brokenhearted mother (a finely calibrated Sally Fields); and the credible patter of dozens of other characters, all of which Kushner deftly juggles to create vistas of the intimately personal and the largely political.
But none is so finely crafted as the president himself. The spitting image of the gangly, country lawyer with a disheveled appearance, Daniel Day-Lewis eerily embodies one of the most familiar of American leaders. Creating a Lincoln deliberate in both movement and speech, Day-Lewis employs a steady, lumbering gait and a thin, reedy drawl that neither betrays a fancy education nor detracts from the homespun yarns – his greatest pleasure – that he frequently indulges in to both the wonder and aggravation of his captive audiences. His Lincoln is a frisky raconteur, but also a hard-nosed negotiator willing to play both ends in the interest of the greater good. He’s a tender father, a forgiving, if impatient husband, and a principled leader with an unwavering sense of the moral right.
It’s a slow-burn, extraordinary performance precisely because it lacks ostentation – just as Lincoln lacked ostentation – and Steven Spielberg directs it in a straightforward, unassuming style that is entirely subservient to the material. Supported by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s brownish hues depicting a small, simpler America, Lincoln is told with few sentimental trappings or grandiosity of themes – a welcome turn of events after Spielberg’s treacly WWI mess last year, War Horse. At times, John Williams’s score soars and swells a bit too much as in the film’s one misstep: after the opening of a kinetic, messy battle showcasing the hundreds of black soldiers who fought in their their blues and greys, we are introduced to the great man via a saccharine device. White, and then black, soldiers, all in awe, slowly recite the president’s famous Gettysburg Address back to him. It’s a too-soft moment in an otherwise sharp and largely restrained film.
Kushner wrote Lincoln because, upset at today’s widespread lack of faith in governance, he wished to tell a story that “shows that you can achieve miraculous, beautiful things through the democratic system.” It’s a beautiful sentiment – and a beautiful film – that couldn’t be more timely.
Opened on Friday, November 8, 2012 in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production design by Rick Carter; costumes by Joanna Johnston; produced by Mr. Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy; released by DreamWorks Pictures and 20th Century Fox. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.
WITH: Daniel Day-Lewis (President Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Strathairn (William Seward), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln), Gulliver McGrath (Tad Lincoln), James Spader (W. N. Bilbo), Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), Tim Blake Nelson (Richard Schell), John Hawkes (Robert Latham), Stephen Henderson (William Slade) and Gloria Reuben (Elizabeth Keckley).