Saturday, March 2, 2013

Lincoln

Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis working together on a film about one of the greatest Americans that ever lived?  Yeah, that sounds like a prestige picture.  Lincoln boasts not only (arguably) the best director and (unarguably) the best actor working in Hollywood right now, but one of the greatest supporting casts ever assembled for a simple (read: not epic) film.  Of the ten top-billed actors on Lincoln's IMDb page, there are a total of 16 Oscar nominations (with 6 wins) and 28 Golden Globe nominations (with 5 wins); only Bruce McGill has not been nominated for an Oscar or Globe.  If you wanted acting credibility, you got it in spades with Lincoln.  But does the movie live up to its pedigree?

Lincoln is a tad deceiving as a title; this isn't so much a biopic as it is a chronicle of President Abraham Lincoln's (Daniel Day-Lewis) struggle to get the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution passed while simultaneously ending the Civil War, the bloodiest war Earth had seen up to that point.  For those of you who are not history buffs (America, I'm looking at you), the 13th Amendment made slavery illegal in the United States.  Sure, Lincoln had freed all the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation, but the legal grounds by which he did so were shaky, at best.  Lincoln wanted to ensure that his actions had some sort of long-lasting effect that would not be overturned in a court of appeals.  It's a pretty cool thing to be the guy who freed the slaves, but nobody wants to be the guy who freed the slaves only long enough for them to bleed in battle for him. 
Even a great hat can't distract from that, Mr. President
Unfortunately, his window of opportunity was closing fast.  The Confederacy was weakening.  It was only a matter of time before they were completely defeated.  But once the Confederate states rejoined the Union, the chances of passing an anti-slavery amendment would be nil.  Not only would there be pro-slavery Southerners voting, but much of the support for anti-slavery legislation was garnered from the belief that repealing slavery would end the war faster; with the war over, racism would win the day.  That left Lincoln with one chance.  Assuming everyone in his political party would vote for him (which was a stretch), the 13th Amendment was still a few votes shy of passing --- but there were several men in the opposing party that had lost their elections and were just waiting to be replaced.  If Lincoln's men could convince enough of these lame ducks --- and his own party --- to vote for the amendment, history could be made.  And, as luck would have it, there was one more date available for a Congressional vote before all the peace hits the fan!
"What will it take to get your vote?  A threesome is not off the table."

The acting in Lincoln is, not surprisingly, excellent.  Daniel Day-Lewis is THE thespian stud of our times, and he brought his A-game here.  Day-Lewis went against the traditional interpretation of the character by making him slouch, feel old, and speak with a soft tone, but he also managed to demand all of the attention in every scene he was in.  As luck would have it, that is practically every single scene in the film.  I think some of my favorite moments were the scenes where he relied on nonverbals.  This is a fairly talky character, so having the quiet moments as highlights is just a testament to Day-Lewis' acting prowess.
Example: right here, Lincoln was this close to killing everyone in a 30 foot radius
Leading the exemplary supporting cast was Tommy Lee Jones, who played a perennially cranky character.  Shock!  I love it when Jones gets a role that lends itself to his acerbic delivery, and this is easily one of his best.
Sally Field played Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln, who is known historically for being a bit crazy.  Field managed that well enough, but I didn't think her role was anything special.
Buck up, Sally.  Sulking is not attractive in any time period.
Despite that, Field did a lot with the part and was surprisingly magnetic onscreen.  David Strathairn was good as the eternally exasperated William "I Heart Alaska" Seward.  He didn't really have much room to grow as a character, but served well as a mouthpiece to the logistics Lincoln was facing.  James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson played the three men tasked with drumming up support among the opposition; all three are fine actors, but I would have preferred it if Spader wasn't the one doing most of the work here.
Spader, realizing that this role has nothing to do with deviant sex acts
Hal Holbrook was fine as an obstacle for Lincoln to overcome, although I think this role was a little underdeveloped.  Speaking of which, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a waste of space as Lincoln's eldest son.  One of these days, JGL will play a big role in a big movie --- it's inevitable, given his talent and the people he works with --- but the whiny, over-privileged son of the president is not that role.
"What if I tried pouting more?"
Rounding out the cast, Lee Pace was solid in the strawman role of "that really racist guy."  This is the first time I have seen Pace play an unlikable character, and he did so reasonably well.

Lincoln was the result of director teaming up with , king of the difficult-subject-screenplay.  With regards to the direction, Spielberg nailed all the technical aspects.  Design, costumes, filling the cast with nary a bad actor, etc. --- Spielberg is too big of a director to accept anything but the best in these regards.  While he has never been the strongest director in terms of cinematography, Spielberg still managed to snag several memorable shots of an American icon.
He also handled the actors quite well.  Having a great cast obviously helps with that, but Day-Lewis, Jones, and Field were all deserving of their award nominations, and Spielberg was ultimately responsible for that. 

I think Kushner did a solid job with the plot and the dialogue.  Both Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) had some fantastic lines, and transforming this political issue into an interesting story was an impressive feat.  Lincoln is missing something, though.  I want to say that it is something immaterial, like "heart," but I can do better than that.  This is a smart script, no doubt.  It is just not an emotional one.  American culture has reached a point where racism is justly vilified.  It definitely still exists, but racists are generally acknowledged as assholes, as they should be. 
"Amend that.  It should read 'total fucking assholes'"
This might have been a brave film as late as 1975, but in 2012, the subject matter isn't compelling enough on its own.  This needed an emotional anchor to twist the audience's stomach in knots while we waited for the inevitable, and that was lacking.  There were some attempts.  Thaddeus Stevens' change of policy was intriguing, but underdeveloped.  Abraham and Mary Todd shared a scene where they got to bare their souls, but it wasn't nearly enough to warm an otherwise cold story.
"You act like a little culture will kill you!"
The fault is not Kushner's alone, of course.  Lincoln has been Spielberg's baby for years, and he managed to put out a smart, well-acted and -directed film without that crucial element that makes you cry at the end.

I was expecting a lot from Lincoln, and only got most of what I hoped for.  This is technically a better film that Spielberg's last effort, War Horse, but that movie drew me in, despite my objections.  Lincoln is more cerebral, but leaves emotions at the door, and that turned out to ultimately be a mistake.  Even without something tugging at my heartstrings, it is hard to dismiss Daniel Day-Lewis reinventing an American icon.  With all the good and the not-quite-bad, Lincoln gets

2 comments:

  1. Next to DDL James Spader was my favorite performance in the film...I wish he had more screen time, certainly not less!

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  2. Spader was your second??? Not Tommy Lee Jones? I can't even comprehend that.

    My thing with Spader is not that I dislike the guy. I just like Hawkes and Nelson a lot, and their roles were pretty bland; Spader had all the fun for the three of them.

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