Friday, January 11, 2013

Lincoln, aka West Wing 1864

I should have wanted to see this movie more than I did, but as with so many 'worthy' films, like The King's Speech, I resisted seeing Lincoln a little bit, like a child resisting the need to eat his vegetables.

On the face of it, such foot-dragging is ridiculous: I am a big fan of Steven Spielberg, and of Daniel Day Lewis, an an ardent explorer of the American Civil War, and an admirer of Lincoln.  The obvious Oscar-baitiness of the film may be a factor, but as a film fan, that's a little disingenuous too, as it turns out a lot of Best Picture nominees turn out to be pretty good movies to boot, and Lincoln certainly is. It's not for everyone, to be sure, and haters of politics would do well to stay away, but those of us who find dramatic interpretation of the machinations behind legislation to be entertaining are well served indeed.

Lincoln feels a bit anachronistic at times, but not so much because it is a period picture, but because of the languid pace, and the length of some of the shots.  There are no sweeping panoramas nor epic crane shots; Audrey mentioned afterwards how so much of the film could be staged as a play, and I can assure you that acting teachers and casting directors will be hearing bits of Lincoln in the years to come.  Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, do some masterful work in light and shadow, without feeling like they are showing off, with the possible exception of one bit of lens flare, for which I will forgive them.  Fans of 1970's cinema (like myself) will very likely find much to enjoy.

This movie is not a cradle to grave biopic (thank goodness), focusing its attention on a specific portion of Abraham Lincoln's  life: his Herculean efforts to pass the 13th amendment to the American constitution and thus abolish slavery.  As a sometimes sympathizer with the South, I have sometimes posited the question, "If the War of Northern Aggression was only, or even primarily, about slavery, why did Lincoln until 1863 before passing the Emancipation Proclamation?  And why did it only apply to the Confederacy?"  Two deftly rendered scenes answer this complex question succinctly, and paint a very vivid picture of the tenuous political standing of a principled man who will end up having to choose between ending slavery, or ending a bloody and divisive war.

Daniel Day Lewis does a masterful characterization of the title character, capturing both the eloquence and humor, the statesman and the family man, with a stillness missing from a lot of modern films.  It is hard to reconcile Honest Abe and Bill the Butcher (from Scorcese's Gangs of New York) as being portrayed by the same man, but there it is.  With no films or video to rely upon, Lewis is free to create an interpretation of Lincoln which is very likely to shape how the man is seen in the mind's eye for years to come.

Sally Field is a sympathetic, yet challenging Mary Todd Lincoln, who disappears into her role almost as easily as her on-screen husband, despite being 20 years his senior.  The real joy for me, though, is in the supporting characters, most especially Tommy Lee Jones as the aging, crotchety, yet razor-sharp abolitionist representative Thaddeus Stevens.  His exchanges with Lincoln, among others, are what made me feel most like I was watching a period interpretation of The West Wing.  James Spader's turn as 'political enabler' W. N. Bilbo is also highly entertaining.

Make no mistake, there is a lot of politics in this movie, as Lincoln must maneuver and manipulate various factions and individuals in a very short period of time, if he is to have any hope of turning some of the lame duck Democrats (shocking how easy it is to forget that Lincoln was a Republican, isn't it?) to his cause and gain the two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives he needs.  Most of the story is taken from the book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which I will now begin searching for.

The fact that such a complicated story can be both clear and compelling is a testimonial to Tony Kushner's adapted screenplay, and though dated and sometimes ponderous, there are times when the dialogue is simply sparkling, and makes me long for a time when words spoken were oftentimes more considered than they often are today.  But there is also a personal story of a man trying to reconcile his household between a son who feels compelled to go to war, and the mother whose sanity mightn't bear the loss of a second son.

In short, if you can tolerate what is, at its heart, a political film, you are in for a treat: a great story, well told and well acted, about a pivotal point in not only North American, but human history.

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