LINCOLN – The Review
For most of the world the name most associated with the United States presidency is Abraham Lincoln. He could easily be considered a superstar of American history. His face is on the coins and currency we use almost everyday. His monument and statue in the nation’s capitol are high on the must see lists of visitors. He is part of the presidential quartet on Mount Rushmore. Scores of schools and towns share his name (even a line of automaobiles). Since the invention of cinema Lincoln as been portrayed by many, many actors (even Bugs Bunny donned the stove-pipe hat and beard in SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT). Just earlier this year he was an action hero in the fantastical ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER. Everyone knows that somber iconic image, but how much do we really know about the flesh and blood human being? It turns out that one of America’s most popular film directors (only DeMille and Hitchcock may be more famous), Steven Spielberg has wanted to tell his story for years. Working from a screenplay by Tony Kushner (based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-seller “Team of Rivals”) he has brought LINCOLN to theatre screens everywhere this holiday season. You may think you know “Honest Abe” from your history textbooks, but there’s plenty to learn in this eagerly awaited motion picture.
LINCOLN concerns the first four months of his second term as president in 1865. The Civil War is finally winding down. The Confederacy has exhausted their resources. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) hopes to broker a surrender before the warmth of Spring brings new battles. But before that he wants to get through a battle in Congress. By the war’s end, the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery must be voted into law by the divided House of Representatives, otherwise the Southern states will block it when they rejoin the Union. Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) must try to temper strident abolitionist Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) as he debates Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) on the floor of the House, all this while engaging in secret talks with Confederate Vice-President Stephens (Jackie Earl Haley). As the clocks ticks away, a trio of lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) are hired to persuade several on-the-fence congressman to vote the President’s way. Lincoln must also deal with his troubled family members. Eldest son Robert Todd (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has left college and is determined to join the Union military, while wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) is still haunted by the death of middle son Willie. But ending slavery is his top priority. Lincoln knows that this will be his legacy and fears that his time may soon run out.
For a long time Steven Spielberg was criticized by many in the film community for seeming to care more about special effects (or getting great visual compositions) than the acting performances in his movies. Lincoln can finally put that notion to rest. This film is filled to the brimwith wonderful work by all the actors involved. First and foremost is the title character himself played by the remarkable Mr. Lewis. There’s none of the flamboyance of Bill the Butcher from GANGS OF NEW YORK or THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s Daniel Plainview. The Civil War has taken a heavy toll on the man from Springfield. He’s stooped and walks with a slow pace while clutching his ever-present shawl. He speaks quietly, sometimes a bit haltingly until Lincoln springs to life with his passionate zeal to stop slavery. A confrontation with wife Mary also shows his determined spirit. This could very well net Lewis his third Best Actor Oscar. He’s matched by another multiple Oscar winner. The aforementioned scene crackles thanks to superb work from Fields as Mrs. Lincoln (after several years on the small screen she is back to command the big screen). She knows of the public’s perception of her as a near madwoman, which complicates her efforts to escape the crippling depression that stems from her son’s death. She still has her dignity and will not tolerate any disrespect from Stevens, wonderfully played by Jones. The scenes of him delivering eloquent, withering insults to detractors on the House floor are some of the film’s best moments. Spader is also a scene stealer as the craftiest member of the lobbying trio. For his dream project, Spielberg has assembled his dream cast.
When I heard of Spielberg’s attachment to Lincoln’s story I had imagined sepia-tinged recreations of the familiar stories: walking miles to school, splitting rails, debating Douglas, and such. Some may be surprised that we’re just treated to these four months. But Spielberg makes this final mission come alive without any of the usual visual flourishes. The main conflicts occur in gaslit, cramped, smoky rooms. There are a couple of large crowd scenes, and a brutal battlefield sequence at the start (full of mud and blood), but the heart of the film are these discussions. Kudos to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski for his use of natural light sources (the large rooms are never blindingly bathed in light). Spielberg’s musical collaborator John Williams contributes a score that never overwhelms. It’s an expert excercise in simplicity. The period costumes and sets are excellent as are the make-up sand hairstylings (lots of incredible bits of facial hair). Some dramatic choices are puzzling (a major 1865 event occurs off-camera), but it doesn’t distract too much from the story flow (the same could be said for the frequent homespun jokes Abe tells which cause Stanton to run from the telegraph room yelling,”Not another story!”). This is a thoughtful, intimate look at the simple man who became a hero not just for his time, but for all times,