Monday, November 19, 2012

Lincoln


LINCOLN: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn (145 min.)

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln takes the right approach to the larger-than-life historical figure.  The execution of the film itself, technically speaking, is masterful.  And of course this is a barrage of great performances from some of the best actors and actresses of the modern era.  But it never connected with me beyond the level of historical docu-drama.  The urgency of the proceedings were lost on me, and that isn't to say this slice of Lincoln's life is not fascinating - perhaps it is the most interesting historical aspect of his life and career.  But the film is detached from any engaging emotion. 

Rather than try and tackle the life of our Sixteenth President as a whole, Lincoln wisely chooses the man's most important presidential moment - the passing of the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery - and fills in the life around him.  Daniel Day-Lewis does what is expected here, embodying the President in a way so fully realized, so convincing, I cannot imagine another actor doing better or disappearing farther into the role.  Lincoln is tall but unassuming, less a Washington politician and more of a storyteller.  Most of the political debates with his peers are shaped around anecdotes from his life as a Midwestern attorney and farmboy.  For such a strong man, his voice was soft and easy.

And despite being an outsider to the pomp and circumstance of Washington politics that had already taken hold way back in 1865, Lincoln still knew how to work the system to get what he wanted.  He was not above manipulating votes to get his law passed; it just so happened that his law was the most important in American history.  Lincoln and his trusted Secretary of State, a decidedly more flamboyant and energetic William Seward (David Strathairn) work the fringes of the opposition to get votes.  They employ a trio of, well, I'm not entirely sure what their profession is; their task is to, basically, buy votes.  The fact these three ancillary men are played by the greatness of John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and James Spader is a testament to the type of cast Spielberg was able to collect for the picture.

Tommy Lee Jones is the clear front runner for the Supporting Actor Oscar.  As Thaddeus Stevens, the stubborn congressman from Pennsylvania, Jones has the advantage of being the most interesting stuffed shirt in Washington.  He adds a certain element of humanity to Lincoln where Day-Lewis can never escape what is expected of his portrayal.  Sally Field has the most challenging role in the film in my opinion, playing the manic Mary Todd Lincoln.  She is a strong willed woman whose energy and mental state often wreck her emotions.  Field plays the role perfectly, without melodrama or excessive outbursts.  I cannot imagine what Lincoln could have gotten done had he not had the family he did have.

As I said before, Spielberg took the right approach to such a legendary figure.  With a life as large and powerful as Abraham Lincoln, a single film could not accurately encompass the figure.  A miniseries would be in order.  So Lincoln took a slice of the President's life and allowed screenwriters Tony Kushner and Doris Kearns Goodwin (who wrote the book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln") fill in the back story of Lincoln's early life.  In doing this, he opened a new avenue of Lincoln's life most are not privy to; we get to witness Lincoln maneuvering through politics and working a certain behind-the-scenes magic of which most Americans are not aware.  And on top of it all, the cinematography of longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski makes the film rich and fittingly antique in the use of natural, piercing sunlight.

And yet, I cannot fully support Lincoln because beyond the set design, the sharp acting, the writing and the filmmaking in general, the emotional connection is lacking.  The film is kept at a distance for much too long and I was never allowed to feel what I wanted to feel by the vacancy of the film in the heart department.  Lincoln is a beautiful, smart, and full of greatness from great actors.  But Spielberg is too hands off at times he should be more involved.  The film follows the passing of the thirteenth amendment and goes right into Lincoln's assassination; but even these final moments, which should be greatly emotional, cannot hold a candle to even the smallest moments in Spielberg's better dramas.

B