Monday, December 3, 2012

LINCOLN is a Striking, Still-Relevant Slice of American History


- A few years back, director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner blew me away with their tour de force work of historical fiction, Munich. Now, the two have teamed once again to craft a film that is at once a record of history, yet also vibrant, urgent, and relevant to today's world. Kushner's scripts seem to challenge Spielberg in a way that other writers don't, and have now led to two films that are two of the most unique - and in some ways un-Spielbergian - of the legendary director's career. Munich was a grim, gritty, violent thriller - lacking the boyish optimism of other Spielberg-directed films. LINCOLN has some of that trademark optimism - it's a much more classical movie, a lighter and more uplifting film. But it also feels like it might be the talkiest film of Spielberg's career - a movie that is about intense conversation, debate, and oratory much more so than it is about flashy set-pieces. And yet ... the two create soaring drama around what is essentially a political movie - a Civil War-era version of The West Wing. Aided by an all-star cast of some of the best living actors working today - including the great Daniel Day-Lewis doing incredible work as Abraham Lincoln - Spielberg crafts a near-classic that is a worthy entry in his personal cannon, and surely one of the year's absolute must-see films.

Despite what its title may imply, LINCOLN is not really a broad biopic of Abraham Lincoln, but instead a more narrow-in-scope look at Lincoln's struggle to pass the 13th amendment during the closing months of the Civil War. Feeling that a victory in war would only feel whole if accompanied by a universal end to slavery, Lincoln wages a separate war in the halls of congress to convince his fellow politicians to see it through. He does so at a time when the country was fiercely divided (sound familiar?), and in the midst of an incredibly bloody and vicious conflict. Not only that, but Lincoln himself had his own issues at home - he and his wife were still feeling the emotional damage from the death of their youngest son years earlier, even as their elder son himself wants to enlist and join the war - despite his parents' protests.

Daniel Day-Lewis is quite simply phenomenal as Lincoln. The role has some of the same period-piece showiness of his Oscar-winning role as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. But ultimately, it's less broad and more grounded - with more moments of nuance and subtlety. And yet ... this is surely an iconic portrayal. Day-Lewis just has a way with certain line readings where he can take a simple turn of phrase - "Shall we stop this bleeding?" and make it into a phrase worthy of the pop-culture lexicon. And that's to say nothing of the actor's chameleon-like ability to disappear behind a role. It's incredible. He simply *is* Abraham Lincoln here, and it's a stellar, definitive performance - one of his all-time best.

That said - wow - the lineup of great actors in this one is staggering, and many have scene-stealing moments that won't soon be forgotten. This is a stacked cast, top-to-bottom. But first and foremost, the man who people will be talking about is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens - the fiery Republican congressman who made abolishing slavery his passion. We've grown used to seeing Jones as the stoic hard-ass of late, so it's a treat to see him let loose and play a character who is prone to blustery rages and incendiary rants. While Lincoln is the measured diplomat, Stevens is the battleaxe - and there's a fantastic Obama/Biden-esque relationship between the two. Of course, Lincoln feels just as passionately about the evils of slavery as Stevens - but Lincoln knows that he has to wade through a lot of muddy water to achieve his endgame, and so his need to reign in Stevens becomes a constant challenge.

Sally Field is also quite good as Lincoln's wife Mary Todd. She has one of the more melodramatic characters in the film - Mary Todd, here, is an emotionally fragile but spirited woman, weighed down by the burden of her position, and still traumatized by the death of her son. The relationship between her and Abe helps give a broader emotional context to the film, and also emphasizes the toll that being President during such a  tumultuous period took on not just Abraham, but on his family.

Like I said, the rest of the cast is staggeringly good. It felt like all the great TV dramas had a representative in the cast, each with at least a standout moment or two. From Deadwood and films like Winter's Bone was John Hawkes. From Boardwalk Empire and A Serious Man, the great Michael Stuhlbarg - who has perhaps my favorite single moment in the movie - when his congressional swing vote proves pivotal in the 13th amendment's passage. From Fringe and Mad Men, the always-awesome Jared Harris - playing none other than battle-weary Ulysses S. Grant. Lee Pace of Pushing Daisies is in the mix. Walton Goggins, so great on Justified, makes Clay Hutchins a charismatic figure. David Costabile, Gale on Breaking Bad, is also good as an obstinate advisor. Meanwhile, Hal Holbrook is great as a wizened emissary Preston Blake, James Spader adds some comedy as one of Lincoln's lieutenants, David Strathairn is solid as the Secretary of State, and Jackie Earl Haley lends menace as a Confederate general.

Spielberg shoots the movie in dark tones that evoke the pre-electric era's dimly-lit rooms and halls. As always, he masterfully uses light and shadow to create mood. And he frames the film's various debates and conversational pieces with drama and intensity - so even though this is a small-scale movie (with, perhaps, Kushner's background as a playwright having an influence), there's rarely a lack of theatricality to the precedings. And on the few occasions where we do glimpse scenes of Civil War battles, Spielberg bombards us with quick, sensory-assault flashes of the bloody horrors taking place just beyond the boundaries of the nation's capitol.

Kushner's script, meanwhile, is filled with colorful language and fantastic dialogue exchanges. There's a poetry to the words being spoken here - and though the use of period-appropriate language can occasionally be challenging to follow, it lends an authenticity, and a gravity, to the film. Plus, you get to hear some fantastic insults (mostly hurled at the House Democrats by Thaddeus Stevens). Still, some of the film's best moments are its quieter ones. One scene in particular, in which Lincoln pauses to pontificate with some of his young staffers - relating Euclid's mathematical principals to politics - are among the movie's highlights. Of course, this isn't a cold political procedural by any means. There's a real beating heart to the film (hey, this is Spielberg, after all). We see how the passage of the amendment becomes a source of hope and a rallying cry for the African-American community, and how this is anything but a normal piece of legislation. It's a line in the sand for America, with reverberations still felt today. LINCOLN brilliantly captures what a moment this was for the American people - a bookmark in history in which the law of the land finally reflected its spirit, after decades of embarrassing and shameful inequality. To that end, there was an aura of urgency and necessity around the amendment's passage, and that is reflected in Lincon's narrative. This was a must-win not just for Lincoln's political career, but for the preservation of the American spirit and the American dream.

Is LINCOLN an ultimate-triumph, career-best movie for Spielberg? I wouldn't go that far. It's a bit draggy in sections of the first and second acts. The movie does an only-okay job of properly introducing its sprawling cast of characters, and so we end up spending too much time scratching our heads wondering "who's *that* guy again?" On that note, I wish we could have gotten a bit more insight into some of the film's potentially-interesting characters (all played by amazing actors), who seem to get very limited screen time. James Spader, John Hawkes, Walton Goggins - would have been nice for these guys to get a little bit more of a chance to shine. I also thought that the film's ending was a bit flat. The true climax of the movie is the nail-biting vote on the passage of the amendment - and so everything after that feels a little tacked-on. I guess I wanted a little bit more of an exclamation point on the film - but the wind seems to go out of its sails a bit in the last ten minutes or so. A lot of these issues may stem from the fact that, originally, this was to be a much more sprawling account of Lincoln's life and death. The part that we got is truly fascinating and great story in and of itself, but things do feel a little rough around the edges - there's still some evidence that this version of the story was sort of cut and paste from a bigger, more comprehensive version (which would probably be great fodder for an HBO miniseries).

LINCOLN is a towering movie. The performances are just thunderous, and Spielberg gives a real emotional depth to what is, on the surface, a political procedural. But Kushner and Spielberg never fail to highlight the meaning and broader significance of this moment in political history - and deftly draw striking parallels to our own era and its all-too-familiar strain of socio-political struggles. And so this story feels incredibly necessary and vital - a mirror-image of our country's past, matched with its continually turbulent and evolving present.

My Grade: A-

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