Spielbergís Lincoln a Rousing Historical Document
The Civil War is nearing its end. President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), just elected to a second term, knows this, as do his most trusted advisors like Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn). The South will surrender, of that there can be no doubt, and as General Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) movies closer to victory the longest and bloodiest conflict in the history of the still-young United States of America will soon be over.
Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln © DreamWorks
This is why Lincoln knows that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution must be voted on and passed by the House of Representative before the lame duck session comes to an end. With the war over, a constitutional outlawing of slavery might not be possible, and with legal questions in regards to the validity of his Emancipation Proclamation at Gettysburg lingering the President feels this questions must be settled now before the conflict ends.
Inspired by historian Doris Kearns Goodwinís landmark Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, director Steven Spielbergís long-gestating Lincoln finally makes its way to the multiplex delivering a sobering and soaring story of determination and heroism belying its stodgy Capitol Hill and White House settings. Fitted with a script by Tony-winner and Academy Award-nominee Tony Kushner (Munich, Angels in America) ranking as one of his finest, the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindlerís List filmmaker has delivered his most restrained and minimalistic effort in eons, at least since Saving Private Ryan, probably since Sugarland Express, and as such reminds us just how wildly talented he can be when he puts his mind to it.
High praise? Yes, and itís meant to be. Lincoln, not without a couple of missteps to be sure, is a remarkable experience. More than just an important piece of history, the movie is an enthralling and invigorating sojourn into the mind of a leader driven to keep his nation intact and willing to do almost anything to ensure those residing within its borders have the same opportunities extolled by the Constitution. There is excitement here, drama and humor, too, everything building to a climax of personal responsibility and inherent virtue all of us at some innate level long to aspire to.
Day-Lewis is every bit as awesome as youíd expect him to be. His performance as good old ĎHonestí Abe is a sublime and cagey mixture of heart, hokum, moxie and grit, the actor disappearing inside the role so fully everything heís done before, every Oscar-winning performance, vanishes into the ether. There are sequences and scenes where you never know what he is going to say, how he is going to act or what it is, exactly, thatís on the forefront of his mind. Heís leader and father, caregiver and seducer, lion and mouse, using whichever trait will best serve the given moment trying to be everything and anything for those he cares for even if heís not entirely sure which tract is best.
Spielberg and Kushner have tapped into something with this story, have found modern parallels only the most clueless amongst the viewership will be unable to notice. Much like the now re-elected 44th President managed with the automotive bailout and with the Healthcare Reform Law (i.e. Obamacare), Lincoln fought and fought hard for the 13th Amendment even though he knew doing so was wildly unpopular (even within his own Republican Party). But he also knew that if he didnít get it passed at that precise moment, at a time before the war ended and while a bevy of Democrats still retained their seats, more than likely it wouldnít get passed at all. He used his political capitol garnered from his own re-election to get this done, using any and all means necessary because he was positive it was the right thing to do, an action history has shown to be more than accurate.
And itís fascinating to watch. Spielberg and Kushner stage these events with evasive bravado, not shying away from some of the shadier aspects of the dealing (and double-dealing) Lincoln was forced to engage in as well as the stretching of the truth required to keep his own party in line. The dialogue is razor sharp, constantly on the money, maintaining historical accuracy but effused with a rat-a-tat-tat zippiness found in classic romantic comedies like His Girl Friday or The Philadelphia Story. More, all of this closed room wheeling and dealing, coupled with raucous speeches made on the floor of the House of Representatives, generates the kind of same suspense-fueled verbal pyrotechnics of past courtroom classics like Anatomy of a Murder or Judgment at Nuremberg. Itís electric, watching it more thrilling than just about any suspense flick or action extravaganza released in 2012.
There are some great supporting turns, most notably from Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones (portraying Republican House Representative Thaddeus Stevens and almost a certain Oscar nominee), Hal Holbrook (legendary Washington D.C. power broker Preston Blair) and Sally Field, cutting a potent and emotionally turbulent swath as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. But for my money, the standout performance, and saying this comes as something of a surprise, comes from none other than James Spader, his inhabitation of gregarious and freewheeling deal maker (think of him as an early version of a lobbyist) W.N. Bilbo one of the pictureís most unabashed joys.
There are some overreaches, and Iím not certain all of the events depicting Lincolnís relationship with his children, youngest Tad (Gulliver McGrath), eldest Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), comes into as sharp a focus as either Spielberg or Kushner hoped it would. Also, while I liked the moment the film chooses to end on a definite case could be made that things should have ended much, much earlier, going out on a brilliantly lit scene of a wearied but unbowed President heading out to a certain theatre most should know the tragic historical significance of.
But, truly, I can find little of fault in regards to Lincoln to complain about. This is a triumph for all involved, a high water mark for Spielberg and company impossible to dismiss or resist. The director rises once again to heights many of us werenít sure him capable of anymore, the film itself a rousing historical document he and his team should be more than proud of. Itís outstanding, and in the end Iím not sure anything more needs to be said other than that.
- Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: ÍÍÍÍ (out of 4)