Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lincoln Movie Review

2300 years ago Euclid proclaimed as one of his common notions that things equal to the same thing are also equal to each other. This is a founding principle of geometry and necessary for the beginnings of modern engineering. It seems self-evident, doesn’t it? Of course Thomas Jefferson held it self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights such as liberty, yet he was himself a slave owner. In Steven Spielberg’s masterful biopic Lincoln, the 16th President and drafter of the Emancipation Proclamation tries to rely on Euclid’s notion to help him in his decisions regarding slavery that will impact the United States and the terrible Civil War that was entering its fifth bloody year.


Spielberg’s film significantly narrows the scope of the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin on which it’s based to focus solely on Lincoln’s last four months and his push to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery. It begins with a view of the President from over the shoulder, looking at admiring Union soldiers, whom he engages in conversation, which eventually turns to Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. The soldiers are able to recite passages from memory, so strong was the impact of his dedication at the fateful battleground. This opening holds Lincoln in high regard, the scene revering him as an icon even while the camera keeps his familiar silhouette concealed, setting up the subtle and deliberate breakdown of the hero, such as he is, to the man that he might actually have been. He tries to reduce his decision making to Euclidean geometry, but it’s to lacking in humanity for an issue that is to decide the fate of, as he says late in the film, millions of people and untold millions yet to be born. In the end he works to pass the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress in January, before the lame ducks leave office, knowing that the war is soon to end and once it does such an amendment would not be ratified, the South would continue to keep slaves because the courts would almost certainly overturn his Emancipation Proclamation as just a wartime measure and several more decades could pass before the country catches up to the rest of the world in recognizing the inhumanity of keeping men and women in bondage.

Nothing in Lincoln brings out the man’s humanity more than Daniel Day-Lewis’s brilliant and sure-to-become iconic performance. He delves into the man rather than the historic figure poised to do great things in one of our country’s most difficult tests. His body language reflects the weight that four years of war has wrought on him physically. His voice is pitched higher than we’ve come to expect from cinematic depictions of great figures. It is not a commanding voice, but one that seems always ready to break.

In addition to a phenomenal central performance, Tony Kushner’s screenplay leaves room for scenes that expand our vision of Lincoln. We see him as a husband and father. Not just that, while he’s trying to steer a country to reunification and eradicate legally sanctioned slavery, he has to negotiate an emotionally distraught wife (Sally Field) who can’t bear to lose another child. And that brings us to their eldest son Robert (an under-utilized Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is the only able-bodied man of his age not enlisted in the Army. The humiliation and shame that brings outweighs the potential grief of his parents should he be killed.

As a director Steven Spielberg is most often at his best with full blown popcorn entertainment. His historical dramas such as Schindler’s List, Amistad and Munich, ambitious though they may be, have all lacked essential elements including a passion for digging deep into moral quandaries. Lincoln is filmed mostly in a simple style without flash with the exception of Janusz Kaminski’s occasional atmospheric lighting pouring in to darkened rooms through windows. Even John Williams’ musical score is serene and thoughtful, devoid of the bombast we love him for. The colors are drab, loaded with murky blacks and dark earth tones. Despite the occasional Spielberg signature – a hero admired or a child in danger – he passes up opportunities in which, in a lesser Spielberg film, he would have opted for a cheap emotional payoff. When Lincoln pays a visit to a Congressman who refuses to support the Amendment and entreats him to reconsider his position for the sake of being humane, we know what we expect during the big vote if we’re at all familiar with Hollywood in general and Spielberg specifically. But the man has some surprises in him, after all. I especially like the absence of moral absolutes, with characters whose support for or opposition to the abolition of slavery is not always born of clear motivation. Even with men in the House who are staunchly for its abolition on humanitarian grounds, when the very notion of it one day leading to women gaining the right to vote, the resounding chorus of denials is deafening with nary a silent voice in the chamber.

The character of Lincoln himself is one of the film’s least morally ambiguous figures, despite a lengthy speech delivered to his Cabinet in which he ruminates on the enormous executive powers he enacted during his first term in order to gain the advantage in the war, hold the Union together, and free millions of slaves. He knows what he’s done is questionable and may well be viewed as abuse of power by the courts or history or both, but now that the people, with eighteen months to think about it, have reelected him in spite of said alleged abuse, he feels right as rain with the decision to push the amendment through a Lame Duck Congress.

Most of the movie is actually focused on the process of wrangling votes in the House of Representatives and the political calculations that must be made on both sides in order to secure those votes. It’s as if Kushner is a well-studied student of “The West Wing” TV series, which was so often about the political process, so much so that Lincoln could more aptly be titled The West Wing: Version 1865. It’s an interesting tack to take for a historical film. This is a genre that often plays out a highlights reel of things most people already know, but Kushner, rather than tackle the broad strokes of Lincoln’s presidency, shows us how he arrived at one of his greatest political achievements. It panders to the audience only minimally, occasionally offering expository monologues for those members of the audience who aren’t versed in the text of the Constitution. At the risk of becoming monotonous and too drenched in the staidness of period storytelling, Kushner spends a bit of comic relief time with the three men employed secretly by Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to finesse Democrats in the House with job offers if they vote for the amendment. James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson play the trio, but it’s Spader who gets the big laughs as the bumbling and tactless political operative W. N. Bilbo. The scenes involving their underhanded business are like brief distractions from the historical scenes that comprise the majority of the film’s running time, providing interludes of a different kind of cinematic entertainment.

One of Lincoln’s great relief characters is Thaddeus Stevens, the sharp-tongued and witty House Republican who answers the President’s call to unite the Republican Party behind the proposed amendment. In the hands of Tommy Lee Jones, Stevens is a firebrand, a fearsome politician with great power and the ability to verbally demolish his opponents, though he receives a publicly humiliating tongue lashing of his own from Mary Todd Lincoln. His dramatic turn in the final arguments before the House vote bears the hallmarks of Hollywood drama, but his reasons for 30 years of concealing his true opinions followed by a sudden reversal are revealed in his closing scene. At the risk of sounding enigmatic, I desperately hoped that his circumstances were not fabricated for cinematic purposes and was glad to find it within the bounds of actual facts as they were apparently known to most of Washington at the time.

Spielberg opts not to depict the famed assassination of President Lincoln. We see him leave for the theater on that fateful night and next we see the interior of a theater, but one where his youngest son is in attendance. The production is interrupted for the dreadful announcement, allowing Spielberg one of the film’s most cloying moments with the boy screaming in defiance and gripping the balcony rail in anguish. There is a brief scene in the home where Lincoln ultimately succumbed to his wound, but then Spielberg closes out with Lincoln’s second inaugural address and the well-known “with malice toward none, with charity for all” speech, delivered only five weeks before his death. It is a speech devoted to Lincoln’s legacy, though he was never given the opportunity to see it through, it lived on through the Reconstruction period. In many ways this country is still suffering the effects of Civil War and institutionalized enslavement of black people. As such, the final words of that speech remain a fitting way to close:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

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