The good: Lincoln is an important film. The not-so-good: Lincoln is an “important” film. Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s lauded 2005 biography, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” this movie’s subtitle could very well be: “How I Got the 13th Amendment Passed Amid a Hostile Congress.”
Lincoln seems to be a labor of love for director Steven Spielberg who, during a recent interview on 60 Minutes, stated that he’d researched the project for twelve years. But it is in this exacting attention to detail (down to the tick of Lincoln’s watch, the wave in Lincoln’s hair, the pallor of Lincoln’s skin) that the drama – the big picture, as it were – gets lost.
An early draft of the screenplay by Tony Kushner (Munich, Angels in America) addressed Lincoln’s life from 1863-65, but the 500-page work was untenable. It wasn’t until Spielberg decided to focus on the President’s last four months, detailing Lincoln’s crucible in abolishing slavery (the 13th Amendment) set against the brutality of the Civil War, that the project became viable.
Even with Lincoln‘s examination into 1865 governance – with those warring political factions loudly reverberating today – Spielberg takes on too much. And ironically, too little, with the action so slight as to resemble a fusty stage play. Spielberg tries to balance the verbosity against an opening akin to Saving Private Ryan, with gray and dun bodies slamming up against each other, flailing at their final moments as they fall into mangled bits — while the film’s solitary splash of color is consigned to a red fragment of a flag. (Echoing the little girl’s red coat amid the bleak black and white of Schindler’s List.) But other than a frantic, high-stakes run from the State House to the White House, with three lobbyists outracing each other to get to Mr. Lincoln, the film is remarkably staid. Not that we always need Saturday Matinee Spielberg (E.T., Jaws, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark). But as his other half, the Sober History Lesson Spielberg (Amistad, Empire of the Sun, Munich) appears to grow ever-ponderous with age. (Just last year, we experienced both sides facing off against each other within a gap of four days: The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse.)
But however dry the film, Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is an absolute wonder to behold. While his voice (rendered in a reedy tenor, as per historic records), his face and his bearing are highly effective, it is the embodiment of the great man himself that is undeniably riveting. With a simple sigh, or a faraway look in his eyes, his shoulders sagging from the weight of his country’s sorrows, Day-Lewis portrays a complex human being who is intent on freeing his people from the dual evils of enslavement and war. His noble intentions are balanced by flawed and, at times, comical idiosyncrasies. We see his chilly dismissal of his eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his impatience toward his somewhat unstable wife Mary (Sally Field and, given her over-the-top performance, we can hardly blame him), as well as his unbridled affection for his youngest boy Tad (Gulliver McGrath). As quiet and as depressed as the character may often appear, when Day-Lewis begins one of Lincoln’s many rambling anecdotes, we watch as the monologue propels him on … and the longer he continues, the greater his mirth. The cloud behind his eyes falls away as his entire face breaks out in a grin, his amusement palpable. This Lincoln is not a Mount Rushmore sculpture — or a Washington memorial, animatronic Disney figure or the face on the five-dollar bill. This Lincoln is brilliantly human … and among the hundreds of characterizations in film, television and books, et al., Day-Lewis’ rendition just may be the definitive portrayal for the ages.
It is a shame, then, that the addition of the subplot of oldest son Robert wishing to go to war proves inordinately cumbersome. While on paper it may have seemed a good idea to include the troubled father-son relationship, given that the filmmakers decided to cast a name star (Gordon-Levitt), the onscreen time devoted to this plot thread hardly seems worth it.
On the other hand, Tommy Lee Jones’ take on radical Republican House Representative Thaddeus Stevens is priceless. Wearing what looks to be a tortured muskrat on his head (by the character’s own admission, a terrible wig), his whip-smart sarcasm — supposedly echoing that of the bona fide Stevens — provides a welcome relief against much of the drearier oratory. Ditto the happy inclusion of the smarmy lobbyists working for the President: The marvelously comic duo of James Spader and John Hawkes and, in a smaller role, Tim Blake Nelson.
The look of the production is stunning. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is frequently filtered through a smoky blue and gray light (inadvertently representing Union Blue and Confederate Gray?), while production designer Rick Carter treats every mid-19th century detail with meticulous accuracy.
There is an obvious resonance to the fact that Lincoln debuts during the same month that America’s first black president has been re-elected to the highest office in the land. In examining the overheated rancor between the legislative bodies of then and now, Lincoln allows for a rather prodigious hindsight. 150 years ago, the idea of an emancipated African American was nearly unfathomable. As contrasted with today? It seems that despite ourselves, despite our differences, we do indeed move forward.
Rating on a scale of 5 ratified amendments: 3.5
Release date: November 9, 2012 (ltd); wide release November 16, 2012
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by: Tony Kushner
Based in part on the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Jackie Earle Haley, Gloria Reuben, Michael Stuhlbarg
Running Time: 120 minutes