Friday, November 30, 2012

"Lincoln" Avenues

When I review a book or a film, I tend to wait at least a day or two before writing my assessments. I do so in order to have enough time to process the opinions and to make sure the various components of the media aren't hastily explored (I do this via copious note-taking and/or long stretches of deep reflection). By waiting, I'm also giving myself time to avoid jumping to conclusions. I'm sure more than a few of my previous essays have the veneer of being glowing endorsements rather than truly critical reviews. However, it's been nearly a week since I saw Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, and the more time I have to analyze the film, the more and more I like it, and for unexpected reasons. A lot has been (rightfully) made about the title performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, but that's merely a part of a more complex exploration of a public figure who has been depicted countless times, often with historical inaccuracies. As it progressed, so much was revealed and presented in beautiful, stunning ways. And most importantly, Lincoln feels like a painstakingly collaborative result, with the acting and behind the camera work blending together almost seamlessly. I do have some mild critiques (I'll get to those soon), but they were not enough to bring down or mar one of the best films of 2012.

Lincoln is partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The focus of the film is Lincoln's attempt to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in the House of Representatives, outlawing slavery before the official end of the Civil War. Like any political issue, it's not without its potential downfalls or manipulations. The Democrats are generally opposed to the legislation, and much scrambling and lobbying is needed to secure some of their votes for the Amendment's passage. President Lincoln has to maneuver to get the Amendment passed before the Confederate States are accepted back into the Union; any delay or veto would render his Emancipation Proclamation defeated. He's aided and advised by his divided cabinet, led by Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), who in turn relies on early versions of lobbyists (including excellent performances by John Hawkes and James Spader) to meet with certain Congressmen to ensure their vote for the Amendment. The vote of Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) is necessary, but fraught with danger--he supports not only abolition, but complete equality among blacks and whites, an idea that seemed too dangerous at the time, when the focus was supposed to simply be on emancipation. In this process, President Lincoln is dealing with a strained home life, with wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) on a seemingly continuous verge of nervous breakdowns, and son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) eager to join the Union Army against his parents' wishes. Historically, the audience knows the Amendment will pass; however, the film is crafted to show how political dealings in the 1860s are not terribly different from today's fractured political climate.

Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Lincoln is startling, and not just in the physical sense. Yes, he looks exactly like every famous photo of the 16th President, but this goes far beyond looks.

As a child, I had a VHS documentary about the U.S. Presidents, and long before this film came into my consciousness, I remember Goodwin discussing President Lincoln and his "frontier lingo." Most films depict him with a polished, deep, stately baritone, but Lewis plays Lincoln with far more historical emphasis. His voice is high pitched and twangy, and he has a penchant for long-winded, sometimes nonsensical allegories. His body is long and bony, and he constantly slouches or hunches, rarely standing straight up and looking dignified. Day-Lewis's performance, without hyperbole, is nearly perfect. He combines the general image of Lincoln with his own research and accuracy. Far better writings and analyses of his acting have been published over the years, so I'll offer this simple opinion: his performance as Lincoln is truly a work of art in the literal sense. This also applies to Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, whom I learned more about through the film that I have in my scattered history of Civil War readings. Since Stevens isn't as mythological or revered as Lincoln (in fact, his views on equality were probably greater than the President's), Jones plays the role with various hints of flair, donning a dramatic wig, carrying a cane, and portraying the man as committed to his ideals, willing to compromise for the sake of the greater good, and delightfully cantankerous. Stevens was born in Vermont before becoming a Pennsylvania Congressman, but Jones adds a bit of Southern gothic to the role, therefore making it a more creative, inspired piece. David Strathairn has long been one of my favorite actors, and his portrayal of William Seward is one of the great political roles I've seen in quite some time. Seward is a staunch supporter of Lincoln, but is unafraid to voice his displeasure during times of crises or with disagreements.

Sally Field's Mary Todd is very well done, a careful balance between private torments and potential mental illness and a brave public face. Since the death of their son Willie, she believes her husband hasn't properly grieved or mourned, especially since the death occurred during the height of his stress over the war. Mary Todd and Abraham have one major cinematic argument, but their private conversations feel realistic and natural. The only real issue I had with the casting of Lincoln was the choice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, and this is through no fault of the actor. With such a variety of subplots and layers to the film, the moral and ideological arguments between Robert and the First Family over his joining the Army aren't very well-written. I enjoy Gordon-Levitt as an actor, but he didn't have very much to work with in the film, and therefore it feels like he's there as one of many famous faces in famous roles, which was slightly distracting. The father-son bond is explored well, but with limited time, since if every aspect had been given proper time, the film could have stretched into many untold hours beyond the standard film time allotments.

Spielberg's direction is excellent, and combines exceptionally well with the screenplay by playwright Tony Kushner. The directorial flourishes are minimal--the occasional setting of Lincoln in shadows or out of the main picture, the opening scene of Lincoln from behind and sitting down, rather than standing and looking more "stately." Since the events depicted are not the most well-known in the Lincoln Presidency, Spielberg and Kushner are able to present their own takes on the settings and the dialogue, with a careful, terrific mix of historical accuracy and inventiveness. As a co-worker of mine pointed out, Kushner's screenplay feels like a stage play at times--there are a lot of long monologues and interior scenes/conversations with dramatic arcs. Kushner also explores Lincoln's status as a natural storyteller, with my favorite monologue having to be seen to be fully appreciated, in which Lincoln recounts an anecdote about Ethan Allen and a portrait of George Washington in an outhouse. The writing is carefully executed, since Lincoln isn't a film about dramatic Civil War battles, but primarily about conversations and rhetoric. Most films (or screenwriters) would shy away from long, exploratory dialogue about laws and diplomacy, but this film simply has to use these, and even in the most technical and detailed explanations, there's never a loss of the built-up drama. Lincoln's famous speeches--the Gettysburg address, for example--are merely hinted at or recalled by other characters rather than filmed.

Adding to the overall atmosphere is the cinematography by Janusz KamiƄski. The cinematography is smoky, clustered, and sometimes feels like its presented through an old lens. Rick Carter's production design gives the White House and the Capitol Building a cluttered, dusty look, rather than orderly cleanliness that most films would opt for:

As much as I've lauded the historical accuracy of the film, I'm sure there are plenty of embellishments and creative licenses taken with some of the portrayals--any historical film simply has to do so. And as I've mentioned, some of the scenes are intentionally "dramatic" and clearly done in the interest of cinematic touches. Also, there are so many actors and characters I haven't mentioned in this review, since there are so many elements to Lincoln that a full, complete analysis would require multiple posts (I've done this for books, but I hope this single post on the film is a proper overview). Even with some stretched imaginings, it's so refreshing to see a film that's as entertaining as it is educational. I've only read samples of Goodwin's book, and there's so much more to Lincoln's political acumen. However, this film gives a stunning look at how political diversions and commentary aren't just twentieth and twenty-first century phenomenons. Toward the end of the film, when Congress casts its votes for and against the Amendment, people listen in and share the results as they happen by shouting them to outside listeners and sharing them via telegraph. It's too easy to imagine this happening today, with a constant flurry of tweets, e-mails, and social media updates. But it shows how, even in the days before instant news, historical events were followed with the same amount of fervor and excitement. However, the ugly side of compromise and ideological divisiveness was just as prevalent, too. In the context of the film, these connections aren't done in an obvious manner, but rather, it allows the viewer to make these assessments and links. The collaborative effort that is Lincoln is incredibly satisfying and compelling. While I'm still playing catch-up with some of the latest 2012 releases, I'm sure this film will keep growing as awards season and year-end lists start to approach. It's a relief to know that these accolades are warranted, and I hope it gains much more analysis and credit beyond Daniel Day-Lewis. As much as his amazing acting stands on its own, it's merely a single piece of a larger, excellent movie experience.


Anonymous said...

Daniel Day, and the rest of the cast is just amazing, but the one who I was most taken-away from was Spielberg, who plays everything safe, intimate, and very subtle. Something I haven’t seen from the guy in awhile. Good review Jamie.

James Yates said...

I agree, and thank you for your kind comments.

I was discussing the film with someone, and they made a good point: Spielberg tends to be heavy-handed with his "message" movies. "Lincoln" has so many huge messages, but as you said, it's played with subtlety.

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