Thursday, November 15, 2012
There exists a sweet spot for film biographies of pivotal American figures. Somewhere after enough time has passed following their death for some perspective to form on their life, but before their exploits and persona pass into legend, filmmakers have an opportunity to capture the essence of a great life.
For example, Martin Luther King Jr. belongs in the former category – his enormity, and the pain of his loss, is still too near. Older figures like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington have become so iconic that Hollywood has largely stayed away for many decades. They’re of the ages now, hence too remote to be truly examined.
Steven Spielberg’s grandiose “Lincoln” attempts to bypass this notion, and largely succeeds at doing so through a mesmerizing lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th, and many feel greatest, American president.
It’s a bold film that sidesteps the standard sort of hagiography, peering at Lincoln sideways and slantways, trying to get at the man behind the mythology. In the crafting of Spielberg, Day-Lewis and screenwriter Tony Kushner, the portrait that emerges is of a brilliant but isolated figure, who could enthrall the men he led while remaining a vexing riddle to them. They stare at Lincoln, recognizing his greatness but put off by their inability to truly fathom it.
In essence, the film pulls back the veil of history on Lincoln to reveal a man who was beloved but remained largely a mystery, even to his family and in some ways to himself.
Day-Lewis’ performance seems a little strange at first, especially the high, tremulous voice he employs for Lincoln’s soaring oratory. Perhaps it’s because it’s so at odds with the rumbling sonorous tones associated with prevailing fictional depictions of the president’s speech. Day-Lewis also holds his body at odd angles and moves in a strange hunched shuffle, evoking a decrepit bird of prey.
But after a slow start, the film gets moving and these affectations stop being distracting and start to seem part of the gestalt of Day-Lewis’ character construction. We cease thinking about the actor and his choices and submerge into the story of Lincoln.
Adapted from the Doris Kearns Goodwin book, “Team of Rivals,” the film concentrates on one month of his presidency: the lead-up in January 1865 to the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery. For history buffs like myself it’s riveting stuff, full of inside stories and forgotten bits of lore. Though I fear casual audiences may occasionally be lost amid the vast sea of characters and wonky discussions of constitutional law.
(I think of one section where Lincoln, an accomplished lawyer, parses out the different legal interpretations of his Emancipation Proclamation, acknowledging that the Supreme Court would be within their rights to declare it unconstitutional.)
Speaking of all those other characters – it’s a tremendous supporting cast, including Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as their son Robert, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward and James Spader, John Hawkes and Jackie Earle Haley as a trio of flimflam men brought in to round up votes. One of the film’s revelations is that Lincoln and his allies were not above skullduggery, including bribery and blackmail, to achieve their noble goals.
The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln is a troubled one, in which Abraham felt compelled to cede marital ground to the strong-willed Mary even as his armies marched inexorably deep below the Mason-Dixon Line. At one point he regrets not having her committed to a mental institution, and flogs her selfishness for creating problems for a man already bearing so much on his soul. “You may lighten this burden or render it intolerable, as you will,” he fumes.
Aside from Day-Lewis, the performance that really stands out is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a fiery Radical Republican who demanded not only total emancipation for the slaves but universal equality between the races – something even Lincoln resisted. It’s a strong portrait, a man who was heroic in his ideals but dastardly in his countenance.
Jones spits out his speech in clips and snarls, intimidating those around him like an angry alpha dog. When Stevens’ demands for harsh treatment of the post-war South threaten to tip both the passage of the amendment and the peace negotiations Lincoln is conducting in secret, the two men engage in a brooding contest of wills.
“Lincoln” is a spellbinding but imperfect film. Kushner’s screenplay is filled with several moments that seem constructed with a winking eye to how things will be perceived in the here and now. For example, Mary comments that she will be remembered only as the half-mad woman who provoked a president.
I also thought the coda about Lincoln’s assassination was included inappropriately. This movie was not intended as a comprehensive look at an entire life, but focuses on his leadership and vision, illuminated by a critical point in our nation’s history. Everyone knows the tragedy of his death, so including it feels like a ham-handed grasp for an unnecessary emotional crescendo.
Still, “Lincoln” aspires to much more than simple deification of its subject, opting to demystify Abraham Lincoln rather than merely exalt him. In aspiring to unwrap this puzzle of greatness, the film achieves some of its own.
3.5 stars out of four