Friday, November 16, 2012

Lincoln: The greatness of a man

Lincoln (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for grim war violence, dramatic intensity and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, fueled both by Tony Kushner’s lyrical screenplay and Daniel Day Lewis’ astonishing performance, may be one of the finest period dramas ever brought to the big screen.

A delegation from the Confederacy is en route with an offer of peace that could end
the four-year Civil War, but Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis, right) knows that if the Southern
states return to the union, all hope of passing the 13th Amendment will vanish. He
therefore plays a dangerous waiting game, despite the warning from Secretary of State
William Henry Seward (David Strathairn), who worries that any public hint of this delay
would blossom into a public relations nightmare.
It’s akin to time travel: Our 19th century United States comes to vibrant life, thanks to impeccable work by production designer Rick Carter (an Oscar winner for Avatar), costume designer Joanna Johnston and, most particularly, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Oscars for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan). You can practically feel the dust, grit and coal smoke coming off the screen.

Kushner’s dense script demands — and receives — a massive cast, with scores of speaking parts. The role call is a Who’s Who of names we remember from history class, and the driving narrative often unfolds with the confrontational snap of TV’s West Wing.

And yet...

For all its authenticity and casting excellence, Spielberg’s 150-minute film is long, slow and occasionally ponderous. It’s also claustrophobic at times, with some dialogue exchanges seemingly designed for stage presentation (no surprise there, I guess, since Kushner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who “moonlights” in cinema).

The focus is narrow, as well. Although based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Kushner concentrates exclusively on the events of January 1865, with a brief epilogue in April of that same year. The goal, during this climactic point of Lincoln’s presidential career: passing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in order to abolish slavery. Permanently.

The novel twist, which conflicts juicily with Lincoln’s generally accepted image: the degree to which he risked delaying the Civil War, already a four-year conflict that had claimed hundreds of thousands of young soldiers on both sides, in order to win passage of that amendment in the House of Representatives.

Kushner has made this conflict intensely relevant to our own time, depicting a House that is badly fractured along party lines. Although able to command the undivided loyalty of his own progressive Republican party, Lincoln also needs a gaggle of conservative Democratic votes in order to secure passage. At first blush, that isn’t merely difficult; it’s absolutely impossible, with the Democrats bonded to inflammatory New York Congressman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), due to a gentleman’s equivalent of Grover Norquist’s modern-day “no new taxes” pledge.

In this case, however, Wood’s stance against Lincoln’s hoped-for amendment garners the support not only of Southerners who wish to preserve slavery, but also fence-sitters worried that the likely consequences of successful passage would, in turn, grant former slaves the right to vote (God forbid).

At first blush, winning support from anybody in that camp seems hopeless ... but that’s the thrust of Kushner’s script: the degree to which Lincoln wheedled, cajoled, horse-traded, bluffed and skirted the very boundaries of ethical legal behavior, in order to win friends and influence colleagues.

Day-Lewis brings the man to life with astonishing clarity, stepping so persuasively into the role that his performance transcends acting. As was the case with Meryl Streep’s Julia Child in Julie and Julia, at some point — not that far into the film — I stopped seeing Day-Lewis, and simply took for granted that Spielberg somehow had whisked the actual Lincoln into the 21st century.

Much of this verisimilitude results from Day-Lewis’ delivery of the countless homespun anecdotes for which Lincoln was famous, and which he wielded equally to entertain, distract or defuse an explosive situation. These stories — some amusing, some instructive, some frankly impenetrable — emerge reflexively, sometimes seemingly at random, sometimes even to the annoyance of the president’s closest friends and colleagues.

Taken collectively, as this film progresses, they contribute just as deeply to this complex, multi-layered portrait of a man quietly juggling multiple crises at every turn. His customary demeanor is troubled, his smiles a rare but wondrous thing. And yet no matter how consumed by affairs of state, or the grim tidings of war, Lincoln rarely misses an opportunity to chat with “ordinary folks,” whether White House telegraph operators or soldiers pausing briefly between lethal campaigns.

Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is the ultimate student of human nature: a cunning, keen-eyed observer who matches personality to situation, and then unerringly pounces with a verbal argument shaded to reach this person, at this moment. If the actual Lincoln genuinely possessed such a skill, it must have seemed positively spooky.

On the family front, Lincoln’s wife, Mary, is played — and not too sympathetically — by Sally Field. Her first lady is temperamental, emotionally unstable and unexpectedly fragile, at times given to angry tirades. She has justification, having endured the loss of two young sons: 3-year-old Edward, in 1850; and 11-year-old William, in 1862. These details are covered only briefly in this film, however, which has the unfortunate result of making Field’s Mary seem more of a shrew than seems fair.

Youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath, perhaps remembered from Dark Shadows), no doubt because of Mary’s unwillingness to let this child out of her sight, is spoiled outrageously: given free rein of the White House and allowed to behave as he pleases, even to the point of interrupting important meetings or damaging precious government documents.

Spielberg gets a subtle, slightly unnatural performance from McGrath, leaving us to wonder if young Tad is merely coddled or perhaps emotionally challenged.

Eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) drives an additional wedge between his parents, thanks to the 21-year-old Harvard student’s determination to serve his country by enlisting in the Civil War. Mary is aghast; Abraham understands his son’s desire to “be part of the historic moment” ... but wishes Robert felt otherwise.

Gordon-Levitt comports himself acceptably in a fairly bland role; one visit to a military hospital aside, he’s not given much of a chance to display complex emotion.

Tommy Lee Jones is galvanic as Pennsylvania’s Thaddeus Stevens, an aging “radical Republican” just as hell-bent on eradicating slavery, but who lacks Lincoln’s prudence. Jones memorably displays Stevens’ legendary sarcasm and fiery wit, and his snarky arguments with Pace’s Fernando Wood are among this film’s high points.

David Strathairn is equally riveting, in a quieter way, as Secretary of State William Henry Seward. The back-story here is fascinating — and, alas, Kushner’s script has no time to go into it — because Seward and Lincoln were adversaries only a few years earlier, when the former lost the contentious Republican presidential nomination in 1860 to Lincoln. But once ensconced in Lincoln’s cabinet, Seward became both a friend and a trusted political ally, not to mention one of the few individuals able (and allowed) to argue with the president.

Hal Holbrook makes the most of his role as feisty, powerful Southern politician and Republican reformer Francis Preston Blair; Walter Goggins (TV’s Justified) pops up, tellingly, as Ohio Congressman Clay Hawkins. Mild comic relief is provided by John Hawkes, James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson, cast as the back-door, glad-handing “gang of three” — Robert W. Latham, W.N. Bilbo and Richard Schell — who attempt to win the badly needed Democratic votes. (Think of these three as proto-lobbyists.)

Gloria Reuben (still remembered from TV’s ER) is graceful, dignified and courageously forthright as Elizabeth Keckley, the former slave who served as the White House seamstress and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley, who deserves her own movie, also became an activist for women, children and freed slaves.

Although the Civil War most often remains an off-camera presence, Spielberg briefly indulges in battlefield footage, once again displaying a flair for the grim, ground-level human warfare that he depicted so well in Saving Private Ryan and War Horse. Spielberg doesn’t exploit these moments, but he also ensures that we appreciate the ghastly horror of a barbaric conflict that brutally killed men on the battlefield, and then later took the lives of even more during horrifically primitive hospital “treatment.”

For the most part, though, I was reminded throughout of Spielberg’s Amistad, another dialogue-heavy historical drama that focused on the courtroom confrontation that resulted from an 1839 mutiny aboard a slave ship bound for the northeastern coast of the United States. The compelling oratory in that film was provided by Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey and Anthony Hopkins (the latter as John Quincy Adams), with a similarly word-rich script from David Franzoni.

But despite the powerful performances and historically opulent scenario, that film remains one of Spielberg’s lesser-known efforts; it simply doesn’t resonate (although I dearly hope it continues to be shown in high school history classes).

It’s not easy to make a film that rises and falls solely on the basis of arguments delivered well by a persuasive cast; the ultimate model probably remains 1957’s 12 Angry Men. By concentrating almost exclusively on the political duels here, at the expense of often crucial character back-story, we simply don’t get to know the players in Lincoln’s orbit all that well. Spielberg and Kushner assemble them for this pivotal moment in history, and expect us to fill in the necessary blanks.

I’d like to believe that Day-Lewis’ spellbinding Lincoln and Kushner’s enthralling dialogue will be enough to hold viewers’ attention.

We shall see.

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