Monday, November 12, 2012
Director - Steven Spielberg
Writer - Tony Kushner
PG-13; 149 Min
Abraham Lincoln - Daniel Day-Lewis
Mary Todd Lincoln - Sally Field
William Seward - David Strathairn
Thadeus Stevens - Tommy Lee Jones
I'd like to take this moment to personally thank Mr. Spielberg for something I never thought would be possible, giving us, in less than one year, a way to forget all about War Horse. So gifted is this man, that he knew if he let people think too long about last year's ridiculous abomination and the insane nomination for best picture, that we would revolt in one way or another, and so he decided to go to the opposite extreme and direct one of the best films of the year with one of the best scripts and best cast I've seen in a long time. It's a toss up whether I can come up with more superlatives for Lincoln or more eye-rolling facial expressions for War Horse, but thankfully I am willing to move on from last year and stand up and applaud what is in front of us now.
I was fortunate enough to be within driving distance of one of a very few theaters in the country showing this film a week before wide release and I took the opportunity to view it. If the Los Angeles film crowd is in any way a representation of the rest of the country (Umm... well...) then this is going to be a monster hit, as all 4 screens for all showings today were sold out at the theater I chose. The previews ended and the lights dimmed and I sat back on my seat and watched intently as the master actor of our generation, Daniel Day-Lewis, became one of the most iconic figures in American history. Nobody ever saw footage nor heard audio of Lincoln so it would be easy to say Day-Lewis could have done just about anything and it would have been accepted, but it is well reported that he took this role so seriously that he sought out as much documentation on record as possible to piece together the sounds and movements that those who did witness the man in person passed on through written and spoken accounts. What he gives us is a humble President, a man of modest upbringing and education who cares greatly about the country, a flawed man with personal affairs to tend to, but a man of conviction willing to bend as needed to achieve ultimate goals. What we are given is a complex look at a man who happened to be in power at an extremely complex time in our nation's history.
Spielberg was incredibly smart to focus on a very short period of time near the end of the Civil War to make this feature length film. By not cramming an entire life or Presidency into 150 minutes he is able to focus tightly on a few important issues, mainly the impending end of the war and the frantic fight to pass the 13th Amendment freeing all slaves. These two items intersect in a fascinating way and the drama created around this time period feels very real and very important.
The cast is long and storied, but a few stand out performances are worth mentioning alongside Daniel Day Lewis, who is probably the biggest lock in history to garner an Oscar nomination, if not the biggest lock ever to win the award. Notable performances go to Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, emotionally troubled wife of the President but not in quite the way history may have us believe. Field gives this woman a very 3 dimensional personality and comes across both brilliantly strong and devastatingly grief stricken. Allusions to her supposed mental state are addressed and add a lot of depth to the story and the President.
Both David Strathairn as Secretary of State Seward and Tommy Lee Jones as House of Representatives Thadeus Stevens give this epic story depth in terms of the men who both surrounded Lincoln on a daily basis as well as helped to shape the legislation of the day. Both men give solid performances but I smell a best supporting nod for Tommy Lee Jones here. Whereas Field has what feels like a larger role (and I assume awards will come to her as well) Jones takes the smaller pieces he is given and makes them all memorable, even when he does nothing but sit grimly awaiting the results of the most important vote of his life. A myriad of other supporting roles make this film special, including some comic relief and gravity grounding scenes from multiple faces you will recognize. To nit pick something, since I have very little to nothing negative to say, Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham and Mary, is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and it just doesn't work for me. He isn't given a lot of screen time nor a lot to say, but what he is given doesn't feel worthy of those around him. He also simply ha a face that doesn't seem to work for this time period. Normally an actor I have come to like a lot, it just didn't fit.
The script was written by Tony Kushner, a writer I became familiar with 2 decades ago when I read his amazing play Angels In America. When I saw his name attached to the project I just felt like it was going to work. The dialogue in the film can be challenging at times but always in a great way that pays off to those who listen. There are frequent scenes of back and forth wit which reminds us what a good screen play can be.
In the end, it is the man himself, Lincoln, going through the process of what is right and what is best for the country, that will stick with me. This was an intelligent man who understood politics as well as anyone in his day, and he used that understanding to move the country forward in ways that would reverberate throughout our history. There is a reason this President is so revered and so iconic, but as with all people placed on a pedestal there is room for criticism, and this film does a nice job of raising both the potential positives and negatives associated with his life. The beginning and ending of the film are handled with great dexterity and I was pleased at the decisions made in terms of what was important and not so important to the story and what was actually shown on screen.