Friday, January 18, 2013

'Lincoln' brings history vividly alive

"Lincoln," director Steven Spielberg's extraordinary look at the final months of Abraham Lincoln's life, has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards and has been receiving many other accolades. It is absolutely deserving of all the praise.

Spielberg, who has had a fascination with the 16th president of the United States since he was a boy and spent 12 years researching the film, hasn't made a bio-pic spanning Lincoln's whole life. Instead he focuses on Lincoln's efforts to pass the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery. This is a wise choice as this is Lincoln's greatest achievement and his lasting legacy.

Much of the screen time is taken up with House of Representative debates and behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. This is a dialogue-heavy film full of various politicians bantering and bickering back and forth. In lesser hands this could have become deathly dull — and for some audience members it still might be — but thanks to Spielberg's share-handed direction, a sharp script by Tony Kushner and a stellar cast, the film is always engaging.

Lincoln is presented as a good, passionate man, who realizes he's in the rare position to do something for the greater good. At times, Lincoln almost comes across as saintly, a clear sign of Spielberg's reverie for the man, but Spielberg doesn't shy away from complex issues.

Lincoln needs to participate in some shady, even potentially impeachable actions, to get the 13th amendment passed. The ends justified the means and so history puts Lincoln down as a great man, but what if his cause had been less noble? Would we then look at his more morally gray choices differently?

The biggest key to the film's success is acting powerhouse Daniel Day-Lewis, who doesn't so much play Lincoln as inhabit him. Day-Lewis captures Lincoln's well-known ability to tell engaging stories with warmth and humor. Throughout the film, Lincoln tells long-winded seemingly irrelevant anecdotes. His easy-going oratory skills are what made Lincoln a beloved man, and Day-Lewis is able to portray that quality beautifully.

Clearly, we have no audio or visual documentation of Lincoln to go by, but Day-Lewis is so convincing in the role that you come away thinking you just spent time with the actual man. Just with his body language, facial expressions or the way he pauses in his reading of a line, he is able to create a characterization of a man rather than a myth.

This isn't solely Day-Lewis' show though. He is surrounded by one of the best casts collected in recent years, and everyone (with one exception) is in top form. Remarkably, Spielberg manages to juggle a large cast with everyone disappearing into their characters. Familiar faces include David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Lee Pace, and, most valuably, Tommy Lee Jones.

Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, a radical abolitionist who is a key player in getting the 13th amendment passed. Kushner's screenplay gives Jones some fantastic acid-tinged verbal barbs which he delivers in his signature gruff style. It is a controlled and subtle performance that makes Stevens more than just a quip machine. The final reveal of what has been the driving force behind Stevens' passion is a surprising and touching moment.

Spader, Hawkes and Nelson provide comic relief as a trio of lobbyists hired by the Secretary of State (Strathairn) to bribe voters to get the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the amendment. They provide amusing color commentary during the House debates, and their backdoor political dealings are both fascinating and often rather funny.

The only weak link in acting is, surprisingly, Sally Field as Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd. Mary was notoriously known for being emotionally tortured, particularly about the loss of one her sons. Field plays this anguish in a broad, hamfisted manner that feels very actorly.

Field struggles to capture the humanity of Mary, which stands out all the more when placed next to Day-Lewis' formidable performance. She does have one stinging put down in an exchange with Jones that is memorable, but otherwise the performance is shrill and distracting.

Everything else about the film is so superior, though, that Field's performance becomes a minor issue.

There is a more subtle ending that Spielberg could've chosen, but that is nit-picking. The ending doesn't take away from the overall power of the film. This is a compelling portrait of not only a man, but of an important time in our history. Spielberg has managed to bring history vitally alive. This will surely become a staple in history classes for a long time.

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