Monday, November 19, 2012

Movie Review: Lincoln

Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Written by: Tony Kushner based on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Strathairn (William Seward), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln), James Spader (W.N. Bilbo), Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), John Hawkes (Robert Latham), Jackie Earle Haley (Alexander Stephens), Bruce McGill (Edwin Stanton), Tim Blake Nelson (Richard Schell), Joseph Cross (John Hay), Jared Harris (Ulysses S. Grant), Lee Pace (Fernando Wood), Peter McRobbie (George Pendleton), Gulliver McGrath (Tad Lincoln), Gloria Reuben (Elizabeth Keckley), Michael Stuhlbarg (George Yeaman), David Costabile (James Ashley), Walton Goggins (Clay Hutchins), Colman Domingo (Private Harold Green), David Oyelowo (Corporal Ira Clark), Lukas Haas (First White Soldier), Dane DeHaan (Second White Soldier), S. Epatha Merkerson (Lydia Smith).

I have seen a lot of movies about politics and politicians in my life – I’m a bit of a political junkie, and I like to see movies about those in power. But watching Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, I realized how few of those movies show how politics actually work – that shows the inner workings of politicians, and shows how they actually get a bill passed. Otto Preminger’s under rated Advise and Consent, which was about a confirmation hearing of a controversial Secretary of State nominee and Rod Lurie’s The Contender, about a confirmation of a controversial Vice President, delved into this somewhat – how politician’s corral the votes they need, and keep them in line, but neither of them go as far as Lincoln does. This is not a traditional biopic about Abraham Lincoln – there are no childhood scenes, no scenes of Lincoln as a young man as his politic views form. By the time the movie opens, Lincoln is already fully formed – he has just been re-elected President, the Civil War is on its last legs, and he wants to ensure that before it ends, he has gotten the 13th Amendment passed – the one that bans slavery. If he waits until the war is over, he knows he’ll lose some people. But Lincoln only has a month to pass it. The lame duck congress has 64 Democrats who were voted out – and will now be looking for new jobs. If Lincoln can keep all of the Republicans in line – and get 20 Democrats to vote against their party – he can get the Amendment passed.

I like these types of “biopics” better than the all-encompassing ones – the ones that try to explain an entire person’s life in two hours, which is pretty much impossible. By concentrating on the last few months of Lincoln’s life Spielberg – and screenwriter Tony Kushner – do a better job at defining just what made Lincoln so special – you get to know Lincoln more intimately than you would in a more traditional movie. As played by Daniel Day-Lewis – who once again proves why the Time Magazine headline that proclaimed him the World’s Greatest Actor was right – Lincoln is a soft spoken, but passionate man. He was seen by many in his time as little more than a country bumpkin – he came from a dirt poor family, had almost no formal education, but he also had a great mind, and essentially taught himself everything he knows. He also a natural storyteller – as this movie brilliantly shows – as Lincoln is fond of going off on tangents, telling stories of his past, to illustrate the point about the present he is trying to make. I’m sure there will be a few people in the audience, who like Bruce McGill does in the movie, throws up his hands at one point and says “Oh no, you’re going to tell another story” and storms away. But it is in these stories when Lincoln’s humanity – and political genius – is most on display. He is able to draw everyone around him into his world – make them feel valuable and almost always, see that he is right, no matter what they thought before the meeting began. Day-Lewis plays Lincoln as a tired man – hunched over, almost constantly wrapped in a blanket to ward off the cold, the lines on his face getting deeper. Yes, as has been well established, Lincoln is a bit melancholy – but there is passion here. He believes in ending slavery, and he’ll do it anyway necessary.

The movie tells how Lincoln and his team were able to secure the necessary votes. He had to corral the Conservative Republicans, by appeasing the powerful Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), by convincing them that he was going to end the war as quickly as possible, which is all they care about. He also has to appease the abolitionists in his party – led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who not only want slavery ended, but total equality for Negros – which is pretty much the nicest thing African Americans are called in this movie. He then needs to get 20 Democrats on his side – so he hires three shady political fixers (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson), who will not exactly bribe these congressmen for their votes, but come fairly close to doing so. This is the tricky part, because the Democrats are led by some vile, racists in Congress, who will see anyone in their party crossing over as traitors.

Day-Lewis’ is not the only great performance in the movie. Sally Field is quite good as Mary Todd Lincoln – a little unstable, still grieving the loss of her son a few years ago, but also a little stronger than her reputation suggests. Tommy Lee Jones steals his scenes as Stevens – who is much more blunt in his wishes than Lincoln is, but also knows he’ll have to swallow some of his pride in order for the Amendment to pass – he will essentially have to lie in Congress about his true feelings and intentions. Jones is hilarious in some of his scenes, and heartbreaking in his final scene. But most often, there is a look of pure aggravation on his face – as he has to sit there politely and listen to horrible racists spout their vile beliefs, and mainly have to smile. Spielberg and Kushner have been criticized in some corners for not giving any African Americans bigger roles – for making the ones that do have roles rather passive, and not really showing the evils of slavery. This didn’t bother me because we already know the evils of slavery, and that is really outside the scope of this movie, and most African Americans at the time had to be somewhat passive – especially in mixed company – or they risked their lives. And the movie quite clearly does show just how racist elected officials – and the country at large at that time – really were.

Lincoln surprised me in many ways. Normally, we expect something more epic when dealing with historical figures, but Spielberg’s film is much more intimate than that. Most of the scenes take place in small rooms – with men hammering out deals, or in the House, where the debate rages on. Spielberg does the epic so well, that it surprised me how intimate this film is. Yes, there are speeches in the movie – and on a few occasions they are a little too on the nose – but generally this is a film about people talking, and yet the movie is thrilling. Not only that but Spielberg, who has a reputation of taking his “serious” movies too seriously, but this movie doesn’t do that. Tony Kushner’s screenplay is actually quite funny – and treats historical figures as people first, not merely as Very Important People.
Yes, Spielberg, who has always had trouble with endings, takes Lincoln a few scenes too long. There is a moment that would have been a perfect ending – that captures everything we know learned about the man during the course of the last two and half hours, and would have represented a perfect ending to the film. Spielberg ends the movie how audiences would expect him to, but he had the perfect ending right there in front of him. This is a small complaint though on an otherwise great movie – perhaps the movie America needs right after a rather nasty Presidential election.

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