Sunday, November 11, 2012
Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has a lot to live up to, even when you get past the fact that its subject is the greatest of all American presidents and one of history’s most mythologized characters. Its cast members have won at least five Oscars, with two apiece belonging to the odd but compelling couple at the center of the story, Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, his tormented and demanding co-strategist and life partner. The two best-known previous films about our 16th president were made by D.W. Griffith and John Ford, who represent exactly the kind of classic American cinema against which Spielberg measures himself. (In fairness, neither Griffith’s early talkie “Abraham Lincoln,” starring Walter Huston, nor Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” with Henry Fonda in the title role, is much watched these days.)
Then there’s the question of Spielberg’s up-and-down directing career, which includes three Oscars of his own, several of the biggest hits in movie history and a marked propensity for sentimental overreach when he tries to tackle serious drama. (I remain somewhat willing to defend both “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List,” for example, but both are great in parts rather than great as a whole.) Expectations for “Lincoln” could not possibly have been higher, and I’m inclined to think that Spielberg’s biggest challenge in making it lay in overcoming his own worst impulses. It could so easily have turned into sweeping oratory, montages of Civil War dead and a slow-motion assassination scene in Ford’s Theatre, all set to a keening John Williams violin score. (“Lincoln” does in fact have a score by Williams, but it’s effective and rarely obtrusive.)
There are a couple of brief but memorable Civil War scenes near the beginning and end of “Lincoln,” and a few snippets from his speeches, notably his second inaugural address a few weeks before his death. But we don’t see Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address, and the event you’ll be dreading as the story moves toward April of 1865 is handled with grace and delicacy. As I noted in an essay last weekend, John Wilkes Booth is never seen and never mentioned, which can only have been a deliberate choice. (I, for one, am grateful.) As for Spielberg, he has outdone Griffith and Ford and then some, crafting a thrilling, tragic and gripping moral tapestry of 19th-century American life, an experience that is at once emotional, visceral and intellectual. In a mesmerizing collaboration with a great actor (Day-Lewis) and a visionary writer (Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner), Spielberg has captured Lincoln as a shrewd political leader and a man of his time rather than a brooding philosopher-poet on a pedestal (although there’s some of that too).
Writes Roger Ebert: I've rarely been more aware than during Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" that Abraham Lincoln was a plain-spoken, practical, down-to-earth man from the farmlands of Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. He had less than a year of formal education and taught himself through his hungry reading of great books. I still recall from a childhood book the image of him taking a piece of charcoal and working out mathematics by writing on the back of a shovel.
Lincoln lacked social polish but he had great intelligence and knowledge of human nature. The hallmark of the man, performed so powerfully by Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln," is calm self-confidence, patience and a willingness to play politics in a realistic way. The film focuses on the final months of Lincoln's life, including the passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery, the surrender of the Confederacy and his assassination. Rarely has a film attended more carefully to the details of politics.
Lincoln believed slavery was immoral, but he also considered the 13th Amendment a masterstroke in cutting away the financial foundations of the Confederacy. In the film, the passage of the amendment is guided by William Seward (David Strathairn), his secretary of state, and by Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the most powerful abolitionist in the House. Neither these nor any other performances in the film depend on self-conscious histrionics; Jones in particular portrays a crafty codger with some secret hiding places in his heart.
Writes R. Kurt Osenlund in Slant Magazine: As probing as this film is in regard to the political landscape of the 1860s, it digs nearly as deep into Lincoln's personal life, which was stricken by tragedy and evidently ruled over by Mary Todd (Sally Field), a volatile conservative grieving the loss of young son Willie, who died at age 11 of typhoid fever. Letting the side effects of power and aristocracy spill into private rooms, Kushner pens gripping, guilt-ridden scenes between Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, all of them wonderfully played by Day-Lewis and a truly transcendent Field. The sacrifices of a political family are tinged with intimations of a loveless marriage and mental illness, and the mysterious influence of the woman behind the man manifests rivetingly, such as during a White House party that sees Mary Todd aim her fierce prowess and dissatisfaction at Thaddeus. True to his character, Day-Lewis is the steady hand to Field and Jones's impassioned personalities, and his largely subtle performance is one of world-weary dignity and soft spikes of intensity. There's humor in it, too, as Lincoln's penchant for labored philosophizing yields many spirited anecdotes, which exasperate his scrambling underlings, who think he's off-target. Along with a growing concern for his eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who itches to disobey his parents and join the military, the affable quirk serves as an effective humanizer, while also conveying a president's vital charismatic side.
For Spielberg, Lincoln is a surprisingly un-showy affair, with a subdued palette to match its subject's disposition. Battlefields fill the screen in the first and third acts, but this is no usual Spielbergian spectacle, despite the recurrence of ethereal backlighting, and DP Janusz Kaminski's search for close-up facial reactions. John Williams's distinguished score rarely soars above the light caress of piano keys, as Spielberg shows little desire to pad the inherent drama of Kushner's dizzyingly well-researched and pristinely balanced script. Lincoln is overlong, and as it nears its inevitable end, with the commander in chief slain off camera, the director lets his film lurch before somewhat sputtering to a halt. But what the movie finally communicates is that which seems most fortunate about Lincoln's life: Though he died as a direct result of his tide-turning actions, the president seems to have been given just enough time in this world to change it.