Sunday, November 18, 2012


It's 1865, and president Abraham Lincoln is set to start his second presidential term.  Times are tenuous as the nation is divided and a key piece of legislation is being bitterly fought through the House-- sound familiar?  There's a unflinching link to Lincoln that succinctly provides the connective tissue from our past to our present, a sense that the game of American politics as we see it today in our 21st century lives was really no different at all in action to how it was as the Civil War was waging on.  That master writer Tony Kushner, the extraordinary Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of Angels in America, and the screenwriter of Lincoln, based in part on the book Teams of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, showcases and finesses this connection with such a lightness, a nimble seeming charm is the secret, the key and the way into Lincoln, a grand stage play of the American political system dressed up as an epic cinematic biography film from director Steven Spielberg.  And that Spielberg, a filmmaker enshrined into the American subconscious just as Lincoln is in marble memorial form, so gently recedes his striking and majestic film to rest mostly in Kushner's text and the superior group of actors he has assembled feels in it of itself a greater triumph.  The lack of Spielberg DNA in Lincoln frees the film, one which would far too easily could have fallen wayside by expectation or pedigree alone, and showcases one of the most fragile, restrained and mature pieces of work he has ever completed.

The smartest choice in Lincoln is that in settles in on a brief moment in time with Honest Abe-- the quintessential time period wherein President Lincoln is trying to enact the thirteenth amendment which would abolish slavery and hopefully end this grisly war.  Spielberg, Kushner (who also scripted Munich) and team wisely rid themselves of the tired and inelegant birth to death biopic formula and distill a sense of humanity within the confines of his greatest action.  The searing image through and through in Lincoln is Daniel Day-Lewis, who creates, embodies and imbues something almost supernatural in Lincoln.  Never speaking in more than hushed whispers, but commanding and searing with authority, Day-Lewis (himself enshrined to obligatory greatest actor of our generation laurels) paints a portrait that's uniquely fascinating and altogether unexpected.  Lincoln was a tall man, and Day-Lewis paints an imposing figure, but a fragile one, and a non-threatening one-- his walk is slightly crooked, his posture slightly hunched-- he paints a man with warmth and dignity but rids him of unsightly great man status.  Speaking in wistful and colloquial cadences while biting on Kushner's nearly poetic prose, there's an uncommon intelligence to Day-Lewis' Lincoln, but also a slight cunning, a manipulator of sorts-- he was a lawyer, and a politician, of course, before he was a heroic noble figure in American history.  That Day-Lewis so ably, commandingly and bewitchingly clears the cobwebs from such a part, eschews the easier, if less dignified, shades of outright nobility and inhabits a real world Lincoln is not just Lincoln's greatest thrill, but also perhaps all of cinema.

That's a big part of the spark of Lincoln, Spielberg just lets his actors act, trusting the rhythms of Kushner's words to further the drama.  A film with something ridiculous, like 140 speaking parts, and a cavalcade of actors, ranging from movie stars to a veritable who's who of characters, there's thought, that had Lincoln played to the Disneyland portrait of history, say like Spielberg's own War Horse, the film might have been like a period drama version of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World.  Instead, where given space, breathing room-- some might complain too much in a film nearly two-and-a-half-hours long-- where the differing acting styles and ranges in mood feel nearly perfectly intact, much like a Congress itself, which anyone whose watched a news channel recently is filled with characters, some mighty and some cartoon-ish.  It fits right then that Lincoln would provide space for a grand Tommy Lee Jones portrait of Thaddeus Stephens, a Republican House member with a willful charm and personal reasons for moving forward with the amendment, or a more caricatured rumination of the opposition from Lee Pace as a Democrat House member, or blisteringly entertaining minstrel show displayed by three lobbyist, portrayed by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and an awesome James Spader.  These characters are also a part of our American political system, and Lincoln is a grand testament to politics before character study, which makes the shadings of not only Lincoln himself, but his countrymen all the more compelling and emotional as Kushner and company always keep the momentum rolling.

Just as the political machinations take the central stage and great actors big and small provide nuggets of insight and intelligence from characters that range from low ranking Congressmen to people like Ulysses S. Grant (Mad Men's Jared Harris- excellent), we still see bits and notches of the personal life of Lincoln.  Whether in hearty political or personal debates with wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), a woman famously not as in control of her emotions as her husband, but equally wizened and well versed, or in dialogues of tension with eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), or even in smaller, simpler scenes of the family man and president carrying his younger son off to bed, there's a seemingly un-Spielbergian display of restraint on display.  Field's histrionics are quietly overshadowed by Day-Lewis' passivity, and create a lovely balance and nuance that belies the actors noticeable age difference. 

There's only a few glaring instances where the sentimentalist in Spielberg takes over the cool reserves of Kushner's poetry, and only then are when Lincoln start to show it's seams.  The most glaring offensive occurs toward the end, when (spoiler alert!) we take a visit to Ford's Theater.  Naturally, the obligatory John Williams orchestrations provide their own emotional beats, despite how ill-fitting from time to time.

That being aside this is still a monumental film.  Expressive and filmed in a nearly painterly fashion that not just fits the times but is nearly expressionistic.  Spielberg's longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski, the Oscar winning cinematographer of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan frames Lincoln mostly in shrouds of darkness with thin traces of light to capture the scenes.  It's illuminating but also quite beautiful, and while Lincoln doesn't provide the nicer brand of visual eye candy that Spielberg touches usually acquire, his work is perhaps his best yet.  Same goes for Rick Carter's production design that mixes elegance with muddiness, perfectly capturing the period and tone.

History will forever fully enshrine Abraham Lincoln as the great emancipator and less famously, as vampire hunter, but Spielberg, Kushner and Day-Lewis will undoubtedly be immortalized themselves for telling his tale with such uncommon dignity, humor and artistry.  A-

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