The final months of the Civil War, a time when President Abraham Lincoln struggled to end slavery and bring the Confederate States of America back into the fold of the union, are among the most important moments in Unites States history. They’re also the murkiest. 11th grade American History tried to teach us — war, four scores, Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, and a fateful night at the theater — but with a few hundred years’ worth of events to process, most people leave school knowing that Lincoln made a couple important moves that turned the world what it is today.
Thankfully, we now have a film, courtesy of the legendary Steven Spielberg, that brings the 16th President’s amazing uphill battle to cinematic life. The cold hard facts could not be more impressive.
For Lincoln, an adaptation of the biography Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg scales down his usual blockbuster sensibilities (last seen in 2011’s World War I melodrama War Horse) to craft an intimate portrait of an iconic political figure. To pull it off, writer Tony Kushner (Munich and the two-part Angels in America) constructs the film like a play, relying on the soothing, chameleon presence of Daniel Day-Lewis to breath life into Lincoln’s poetic waxing. The President hits road block after road block on his quest to free the slaves and end the war, Kushner and Spielberg weaving in handfuls of characters to pull him in various directions (and accurately represent the real life events). Each time Day-Lewis’ Lincoln gracefully dances the dance, solving every problem with action and words. Today, Lincoln is held in high regard as an inspirational figure. Spielberg shows us why.
Lincoln isn’t a full-blown birth-to-death biopic of The Great Emancipator, and better for it. Picking up in January of 1865, years into the Civil War, Lincoln summons his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to say enough is enough — the time is ripe for the abolishing of slavery. Against the vocal naysayers of the Union, and even his personal confidantes, Lincoln attempts to rally the Congressmen he needs to make his bill an Amendment. He hires three men (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and the wonderfully outrageous James Spader) to use whatever non-violent means possible to swing the vote. All the while, well-spoken adversaries (like Lee Pace’s Fernando Wood) take to the House of Representatives floor to discredit Lincoln and dissuade congressmen. Keeping the progressive foot in the door is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a foul-mouthed powerhouse who shares Lincoln’s ambitious dreams of equality.
The story is simple, but Kushner doesn’t shy away from laying down lengthy passages of political discussion in order to show the importance of Lincoln’s task. It’s dense material, spruced up with Kushner’s ear for dialogue, but even so, it occasionally meanders into Ken Burns documentary territory. Case in point: there are so many characters with beards in Lincoln, Spielberg even flashes title cards underneath their opening scenes just so we’re not lost. The fact-heavy approach takes getting used to, but Spielberg and Kushner adeptly dig deep beyond the political gabfest to find a human side to Lincoln. He’s a gentle man, a warm man, and a hilarious man. The duo’s Honest Abe never shies away from a good story — at times, he’s like Grandpa from The Simpsons, lost in his own anecdotes (much to the dismay of his cabinet). Day-Lewis chews scenery as hinted at in the trailers, but with absolute restraint. That makes his sudden outbursts really pop. When Lincoln becomes fed up with pussyfooting politicians, like the quivering representatives played by Walton Goggins and Michael Stuhlberg, Day-Lewis cranks the high-pitched President up to 10. He never falters.
There’s a great deal of humor and heart in Lincoln — partially because the circus-like antics of Washington D.C. feel all too close to home in this day and age — and Spielberg paces it all with expert camera work. The drama is iffier: a side story involving Lincoln’s son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) teases an interesting family dynamic that is never fully explored, and is clunky when dropped to the wayside in favor of larger issues. Same goes for Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), who continues to grieve for the couple’s lost child. They’re important issues, but don’t quite work in the fabric of this specific narrative.
The larger world outside the offices of the White House and Congress is often forgotten too — we hear a lot of war talk, without seeing a whole lot of war. Instances where Lincoln ventures out into fields of the dead have emotional impact, but we feel disconnected from it. Where Spielberg really gets it right is the chaos of the Presidential occupation. There is no easy task for Lincoln. “I may have been wrong about that,” says Abe, referencing his issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, “but I wanted the people to tell me if I was.” Day-Lewis understands Lincoln’s complex internal thought and brings it forward in each scene: humble, confident, deadly, and compassionate.
Spielberg’s technical team once again wows and echoes the lead performance. Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski’s contrasting photography, near chiaroscuro, makes the beautiful set and production design hyper real and highlights the actors’ aging faces. Composer John Williams returns once again, but with a score as low-key as Day-Lewis’ character — a change of pace when compared to War Horse. It’s all up to par with Spielberg’s past work without turning Lincoln into a flashy period drama.
Day-Lewis was the talk of the town when the first Lincoln trailers made their way on the web, but surprisingly, Lincoln wows because it’s a well-balanced ensemble drama. Lee Jones delivers his best work in a decade as the grouchy idealist, Spader delivers the comedic performance of the Fall season, and every scene introduces another familiar face to add additional gravitas to the picture (as opposed to being a distracting cameo fest). S. Epatha Merkerson’s late-in-the-game scene opens up the tear ducts in a way that none of her male costars can.
If history isn’t one of your interests, Lincoln may not rouse you — background reading not required, but conversation moves at lightning speed and without much hand holding. It’s a change of pace for Spielberg, and a welcome one. With all the bells and whistles that come with being the biggest director of all time, Lincoln looks amazing, sounds amazing, and has enough talent to make it an exhilarating learning experience.
[Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures (2)]
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