‘Lincoln’ impresses despite saintliness
Updated: November 9, 2012 7:20AM
Steven Spielberg’s enormously impressive “Lincoln” falters from time to time, but the parts that work are powerful enough to make the ones that don’t seem unimportant.
Even so, there are some oddities to be accounted for, including the way the film sweeps you up in its depiction of Lincoln the icon while revealing comparatively little about Lincoln the man. Though it does offer a fascinating portrait of Lincoln the cunning backroom political wheeler-dealer — all for a good cause, of course.
Two good causes, as a matter of fact. Opening in January of 1865, two months after Lincoln’s re-election and only four months before his assassination, director Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is essentially devoted to the 16th president’s determination to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. It is also, simultaneously, about his efforts to bring the Civil War to a close as soon as possible without jeopardizing the passage of the amendment, which many considered acceptable only as a means to persuade the clearly defeated Confederacy to surrender.
Though the moral center of the story is located in the White House, where Lincoln directs efforts to secure the 20 Democratic votes needed to ratify the amendment (through cajolery, persuasion, threats and even outright purchasing) and the scene sometimes shifts to the battlefield to acknowledge the horror of the war and the urgent need to end it, “Lincoln” is at its best detailing the political infighting surrounding the emancipation act.
The highly literate screenplay by Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) bogs down a bit, initially, with the necessity of letting the audience know why Lincoln believes the passage of the 13th amendment is politically and morally essential and why the odds are so great against him being able to make that happen. Once the process gets under way, though, it quickly becomes the narrative emphasis of the film, making “Lincoln” less a biopic than a historical ensemble drama — with numerous supporting characters (many first-rate actors obscured by exotic facial hair) crowding the president into a central but oddly detached role.
Daniel Day-Lewis gives an uncanny performance in the lead (look for Oscar nominations for him, Spielberg, Jones and the film as a whole), disappearing into the character for long stretches at a time and maintaining a physical resemblance that’s almost eerie. But while his reserved, thoughtful, quietly determined Lincoln provides inspiration, other actors, notably Tommy Lee Jones as the radical anti-slavery Republican Thaddeus Stevens, get a better chance to sink their teeth into the story. This was still a fairly wild and wooly time in American politics (long before the neutralizing effects of focus groups, professional speech writers and media impression-management), as well as a time when wit and eloquence were still valued political assets. And Kushner makes the most of that opportunity, setting Stevens and pro-slavery leader Fernando Wood (Lee Pace of TV’s “Pushing Daisies”) and their followers against each other like highly verbal pit bulls. Also by following the humorous attempts of three disreputable political fixers (John Hawks, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader) hired by Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to coax reluctant Democrats to cross the aisle.
All of that works very nicely, as does the general restraint of “Lincoln,” from the somber hues of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, to the unusually unobtrusive score of composer John Williams, to the scarcity of overt sentimentality employed by Spielberg. Ironically, the film’s only notable drawbacks have to do with contradictory impulses to humanize Lincoln, by introducing scenes of family strife with his wife (Sally Field) and son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and by making him appear saintly. Spielberg frequently frames him with soft, nimbus-like backlighting and generally has him exit a room after issuing some soft-spoken profundity so that anyone within earshot can stare at his retreating figure with reverential awe.
From what can be gleaned about Lincoln the man from “Lincoln” the film, especially from the folksy, no-nonsense stories he tells from his days as a country lawyer, he’d be the first to make fun of something like that.