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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Lincoln

Anytime I see the name Steven Spielberg, I often feel a sense of trepidation. With a Spielberg helmed-effort it’s never assured which director will show up. Will it be the brilliant filmmaker that crafted such amazing pictures as Raiders of the Lost Ark, AI: Artificial Intelligence, and Schindler’s List, or will it be the sentimental lensman that brought audiences hackneyed work like Saving Private Ryan and War of the Worlds? I completely skipped War Horse to avoid this side of the director which was clearly in evidence, but the allure of a tale about America’s 16th President was too strong for this reviewer to resist.

One of the most interesting choices within the film is that is forgoes the typically well(and over) trodded nature of the biopic in that it focuses not on Lincoln’s entire life or even his presidency as a whole, but about perhaps the most impactful part of his legacy, the congressional battle for passage of the 13th Amendment post-Emancipation Proclamation. This would prove to be one of the best decisions, of many, made by Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, giving audiences the ability to see how one aspect of his political career gives you the ideal portrait in which to view Lincoln’s abilities, not only as a shrewd politician but also as a man of the people.

The film itself is two halfs of a very interesting whole. Beyond the obvious character analysis of Lincoln himself, the films gives viewers an inside look into how Congressional politics was enacted in the late 1800’s, particularly in a turbulent time of American history, a nation far more divided than today’s voters could ever imagine. The scripting on display here could easily be dubbed a “period political thriller”, while President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is dealing with the ramifications of the tail end of the Civil War and an older son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose breadth of work this year has easily made him 2012’s breakout star) who is insistent about joining the Union Army, he must also maneuver Congress into passage of the 13th Amendment which will abolish slavery once and for all, and his methods of doing so while under immense external pressures make up the body of the work. While watching the film’s versions of a Congressional session, I was struck by how similar Congress once was to the UK’s parliamentary procedure in terms of rowdiness and how insults are thrown far more casually than today. It’s also fascinating to see that lobbying and the potential for vote-buying is the same then as it is in the present time, Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), William Bilbo (James Spader), and Col. Robert Latham (John Hawkes) could easily be Congressional lobbyists or advocates today in how they advance the abolitionist agenda behind the scenes in securing swaying Democratic votes and attempting to withhold any insurgency from the conservative wing of the Republican party.

To return to the brilliant choices made by Spielberg, beyond the focus of subject matter, none could better the casting of Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. While Liam Neeson was originally cast in the role (and left after apparently deciding he was too old for the part) one could be hard pressed to find an actor who takes greater command of the material and literally becomes the part. In interviews, Day-Lewis had spoken to the fact that he had read over 100 books on Lincoln as a part of his extensive research for the role, and working together with make-up artist Anita Brabec, he was able to develop the distinctive look of Lincoln facially. These efforts add to what is an effusive and electrifying performance that, perhaps occasionally histrionic in a few given line readings, will most likely push him into the front-runner status for this year’s Academy Award for Best Actor (though I still prefer Joaquin Phoenix’s work in The Master, it’s really quite neck and neck).

The film itself is packed to the brim with strong secondary performances, along with many tremendous thespians in smaller roles, it literally becomes a game of spot the actor at points; but special attention must be paid to Tommy Lee Jones who gives a fiery performance as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, underlining the tremendous importance Stevens played in shaping the world as we see it today. David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, David Costabile as Congressman James Ashley and Peter McRobbie and Lee Pace as the particularly vile and theatrical Congressmen George Pendleton and Fernando Wood respectively, are all quite stellar.

As far as any potential negatives that slow the film, I found that I generally was not as taken with Sally Field’s turn as Mary Todd Lincoln. While she is a fine actress, something about her performance struck me as particularly stagey, and it lost a bit of the natural touch like Day-Lewis was able to bring his part of that pair. It also did not help matters that whenever the focus was on Mrs. Lincoln, she was only shown in states of emotional and mental duress. Connected to that particular performance, while I enjoyed Gordon-Levitt in the role of Robert Todd Lincoln, some of the tension in regard to his need to serve his country felt a little unearned, with much tell rather show as it were. Additionally, some of the bad Spielberg instincts do occasionally creep up, there’s one particularly bad scene during Thaddeus Stevens famous statement on equality that induced an eyeroll from me. Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre is also shoe-horned into the film in its final few minutes and feels very out of place, it should have most likely found its way to the cutting room floor.

While this is not a film I can recommend to all audiences, as its dialogue and pacing is very slow at times but very strongly period specific, it is an undeniably strong piece of work that will definitely find its way into my year-end Top 10.
I give it a 3.5/4 or an A- if you will.
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