Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Watching Lincoln

I took my In-Laws to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln Sunday afternoon. The film is extremely well acted.  Daniel Day-Lewis, my favorite living actor, gives another strong performance as Abraham Lincoln, conveying an astonishing degree of compassion, folk sensitivity, intelligence, humor, and political iron will that is probably the best and most historically accurate portrayal of the American icon ever presented on the big screen.  Day-Lewis manages to produce one powerful performance right after another in his superb career and he will undoubtedly receive an Academy Award nomination and is the front-runner of Best Actor.

Like the character he portrays did for the entire nation, Day-Lewis carries the weight of the entire film on his shoulders with noteworthy support from Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens.  Other performances of note from minor characters include Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant and Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander StephensHal Holbrook is splendid as the plain-spoken Preston Blair as is David Strathairn as William Seward.

With a strong cast, Lincoln is a traditional dramatic film without any flash (explosions, car chases, etc.) other than superb costumes.  It is a series of set-piece scenes that could just as well be an extravagant stage play for the theater.  Unfortunately for the film, it often feels too staged, several of the scenes are too forced.  While many of the splendid cast manage to give some depth to their characters, they are all in isolation, only rarely does any dramatic tension between them or within them emerge.

The film comes off as a rather one-dimensional depiction of a complex myriad of political events.  In attempting to craft this sophisticated historical narrative into a dramatic story, director Spielberg loses connection between his characters and his audience.  The film tries to do too much with events of the time and squanders whatever dramatic energy Day-Lewis and others are able to muster in order to get on to the next scene or to tell aspects of the story that should have been cut out altogether for the sake of delving deeper into the characters.

Why show Robert E. Lee mounting Traveler after his surrender at Appomattox without so much as a grunt?  Why attempt to establish tension between Lincoln and his oldest son over whether or not the boy should serve in the war?  These and several other scattered scenes are but exhibits of historical fact with absolutely no connection to the primary narrative itself.  They drain the film of its potential power.

The film gets away with using the word "nigger" a lot.  Under other circumstances this might provoke outrage.  But, since the primary focus is on the intense debate surrounding the passage of the 13th Amendment by the United States House of Representatives in January 1865, I suppose it is considered noble to authentically reflect the deep prejudices among northern politicians even as this war for "freedom" is winding down to victory.  To its credit, the film makes it clear that not everyone in the north felt freedom was the main event.  Anyone not using the N-word was considered a "radical" which reveals the nature of bigotry in the country at the time, thus making Lincoln's steadfast, passionate, and skillfully ruthless political maneuvering all the more glorious.

It is clear that the House was as polarized on this particular issue as the entire country is politically polarized on other issues today.  It is equally clear that at least half of the united north was fighting the war for the preservation of the Union, not for the freedom of slaves.  Perhaps only a minority of the country truly wanted the latter.  Lincoln skillfully navigated these troubled waters.  No easy task; an act of political brilliance, in fact.  The Washington DC of today could learn much from this film in that strict regard.

I give Lincoln a 7 for the terrific performances.  Otherwise, the film is a bit of a muddle as it goes off in all ten directions without sharp focus and, most importantly, without personal depth of character.  Day-Lewis' Lincoln is a wonderful portrayal but only scratches the surface of things as Spielberg wobbles between a story of the astute, very human politician and a story of how the amendment that the president ultimately died for passed the House, each robbing dramatic energy from the other.  It is a tragic story not told as well as it could have been leaving me somewhat touched by Lincoln the man but otherwise uninspired by the rather routinely dispatched factual depiction of these great and mighty depths of human experience. It left me wanting more...and less at the same time.

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