Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Film Review: Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

The aptly titled Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg's twenty-ninth feature film, is not a bio-pic so much as the story of a great man's tragic final months.  A great man accomplishing great things in the midst of the greatest of adversity.  Spielberg's film does not cover the early days of the man who would become our sixteenth president.  We do not see the deeds and actions that made the great man so great.  We do not see the tragedy of early lost love.  We do not see the growth of a boy into manhood.  We do not see the young Lincoln as lawyer or debater or resistant politician.  We do not see the first harrowing term that included the start of a war that would take more American lives than any other in history and the debilitating loss of a child in the dark night of the White House.  We do not see that man - that Abraham Lincoln.  What we first see is the man that was born out of these tragedies.  The Lincoln we get here is a man worn down by war and rhetoric and great great loss but also a man who has risen above such things, to fight the good fight, the fight others cannot fight, to become the legendary heroic figure we were all taught about in school.  What we get here is the Lincoln that has gone down in history as arguably - or possibly unarguably - the greatest president this great nation has ever seen.

What we also get here is one of the greatest performances of one of the greatest men, by one of the greatest actors working today.  Daniel Day-Lewis' brilliant, almost dead-ringer portrayal of the first Republican president (back in the day when it was the Republicans who wanted social change and equal rights for all, and the Democrats were the stalwart voice of intolerance - oh how things have changed) should not come as much of a surprise, considering all the virtuoso performances that line the actor's resumé like gold records (and a pair of gold Oscars) on the wall.  What does come as a bit of a surprise is the subtle grace with which Day-Lewis uses to portray the former president.  Known in recent years for more oft than not going well over the top in his portrayals (and this is not meant as a diss of any sort, for roles such as The Gangs of New York's Bill the Butcher or Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood would not have worked as well as they did otherwise) it is a more inconspicuous, more subtly suggestive performance that Day-Lewis hands in here.  A performance that is not so much Daniel Day-Lewis being a version of Daniel Day-Lewis (which he does so well) but a performance that makes us forget just who is behind that iconic beard and stovepipe hat.  A performance that gives us not an actor playing a president, but a performance that gives us the president himself.  A performance that is so penetrating as to make us forget Daniel Day-Lewis and make us see only Abraham Lincoln.  And also a performance that could very well win that oh so hidden portrayal a third to go with those aforementioned pair of past gold Oscars.

But it is not just Day-Lewis who brings it home daringly yet quietly.  Spielberg, and please pardon the reference to a different president, also speaks softly and carries a big stick here.   LIncoln is the director's most grounded film.  This critic has always been much more of a fan of Spielberg's so-called popcorn flicks than the director's more serious-minded fare.  Give me giddy excitement of Jaws or Raiders or Jurassic Park over the cloying, manipulative, heavy-handed likes of The Color Purple or last year's dreadfully-played War Horse any day.  Even something like the almost universally-beloved Schindler's List has its pandering faults.  In the director's more action-oriented hits, this directorial fault is overshadowed by the inherent swashbuckling aura, but in his more dramatic films, this fault stands out like a blinding beacon in the night.  Fortunately for we the viewers, and perhaps for Spielberg as well, that glaring fault line barely rears its ugly head in Lincoln.  Yes, the film ends about five minutes too late, as instead of closing on the president leaving the White House for his infamous date with destiny at Ford's Theater, the director drags it out to show weeping and screaming at his death.  I mean, I do not think anyone need say spoiler alert here, we all know how this story ends, there is no need to drag it out - but alas, poor Spielberg, he did it anyway.  Now granted, this five or six minute faux pas is but a minor criticism considering the 137 or so minutes that precede it is some of the best work Spielberg has done in years.  The fact that when the film eventually comes down to that historic House vote to end slavery, there is enough tension palpitating through the theater, even though we all know damn well how the vote ends (I mean, spoiler alert if I must, but yes, slavery is indeed abolished), to make one shudder in the very face of history being made.  That is how you direct a movie.

As for the rest of the film, and there is a surprising amount of time where Day-Lewis' fateful Commander-in-Chief is merely a peripheral figure in the guts of the film, the act of voting on and passing the 13th amendment to abolish slavery, it too is held aloft rather mightily.  Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and sometimes adversary to President Lincoln, as well as the man who, second only to the president, was the most fervent guiding force in the abolishment of slavery, is dead-on in his performance as well - and probably headed toward his own Academy Award nomination.  Then we have Sally Field as First Lady, or Madame President as she snidely informs Representative Stevens of what she is to be called, Mary Todd Lincoln.  At first glance one could call her performance a bit in the over-the-top realm (a certain someone I know went as far as to compare said performance to the screechings of a howler monkey), especially when side-by-side with Day-Lewis' subtle nuances, but considering the history of one of the most flamboyant (and dare I say a bit insane) first ladies in history, such a portrayal hits the proverbial nail on its own proverbial head.  And I suppose we should tack her on for an Oscar nomination as well.  In the end though, the film comes down to how well  Spielberg has filmed it (saturated lighting, a smoothly moving camera and low-key editing give the film an almost seamless look and feel) and how well Day-Lewis has become Abraham Lincoln (and it too is seamless), and in these aspects, despite those last few minutes of audience pandering, Lincoln, though ultimately maybe not the masterpiece some are touting, is indeed a success.  A historic success.


Dan O. said...

Good review Kevyn. A great movie that shows a top-notch cast doing what they all do best: act each and every single one of their asses.

Bert said...

Kevyn, OMG you are overwhelming, was it as good as Passion of the Christ?

Kevyn Knox said...

Actually I liked many parts of Passion of Christ ya passive aggressive bastard. Seriously though, Lincoln is one of Spielberg's better films. Perhaps not as great as some are saying (it's not a masterpiece guys, c'mon), best still quite good indeed.

Courtney said...

Great review. I was a little skeptical about seeing this, but your review has convinced me to go check it out! Daniel Day-Lewis can do no wrong.

Anonymous said...

I finally saw it, and while DDLewis was as absolutely amazing with his subtle performance, I overall didn't think too much of the film. The cue-the-emotion-music, the long-dramatic Spielbergian pauses (while scanning the room looking for the strength to do what is right), the dreadful first and 2nd to last scenes (& the candle) I all found hard to take. There is so much natural drama with the story and its characters, but (unlike his leading man) Spielberg just can't be subtle and trust his audience and instead dives in too deep with his heavy-handed Hollywood manipulated platitudes which I just could't swallow. But I'm with you when it come to DDL, he's one of the finest of all time, and I think he deserves Oscar #3.