Review: Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN Goes Beyond the Myth

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
Review: Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN Goes Beyond the Myth

The very first moments of Lincoln hearken to Saving Private Ryan, a rain-soaked, dreary butchery where we see brutal and close combat between the fraternal American combatants. As the dust settles, we hear from some of these soldiers as they relay to their commander-in-chief the acts of their battles. We hear President Abraham Lincoln first off screen; as the camera pushes back we see the soldiers over his shoulder, his famed silhouette peaking from behind the tall, stove-pipe hat.

The choice of vocalization is the first that many will be surprised by; this is no booming, commanding voice, but a soothing, almost provincial affectation. We then have the famed words from Gettysburg recited back to the president, thus sidestepping the need for some awkward flashback, while immediately working to solidify the character's position within the narrative. This is but one of many smart decisions that Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner have done to craft what's really a quite remarkable film.

Lincoln is a film about procedures, showing the sausage-making process behind the crafting of one the most important pieces of legislation ever passed by the American government. The film skirts around many of the more overt moments of the presidency, setting its focus instead on the last four months of the man's life. It's also a film about a man prone to spinning yarns, droning on to those around him with story after story, using the parables to make a given point. This is the rhetorical flair of a trial lawyer, and it's both one of the film's strengths and certainly the element that will be hard for some of the audience to stomach. The quiet, deliberate pace of Lincoln's rhetoric is matched by the film itself, yet the film is at its best when these intimate moments unfold.

As viewers, we've become accustomed to the remarkable transformations that Daniel Day-Lewis habitually brings to the screen, and his role here is just as revelatory as per expectation. His choices throughout, both in terms of his physical presence and attenuation of his passions, contribute to much of the enjoyment of the work. While much of the film rests on his shoulders, Day-Lewis is joined by a truly remarkable ensemble cast. Sally Field makes a welcome appearance in a performance that shows off her range, as she wonderfully portrays both the steely and mentally fragile nature of Mary Todd. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes a brief appearance, making 2012 very much the year for this exceptional performer. The triple barrel names continue with an exemplary, affectionate take on Thaddeus Stevens by Tommy Lee Jones, the creases of his face continuing to be one of cinema's greatest assets.

David Strathairn's role is a hard one to pull off, but he does so with confidence. The true scene stealers come in the form of the Ur-lobbyists, a trio that's brilliantly cast. John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a hysterically broad performance by James Spader do wonders to inject the work with some much needed humour. Jared Harris, Hal Holbrook, and the ever capable Jackie Earle Haley further show the quality of cast that Spielberg has gathered, the depth of which is commendable.

As the film is a spiritual sequel of sorts to Steven Spielberg's 1997 film, Amistad, I had worried that Spielberg would make the same mistake twice. In the earlier film, much of the rhetoric was overwrought, the telling of the (truly important) tale of slavery and its consequences leaden by histrionic filmmaking and interminable scenes of shouting and prosthelytizing. Naturally, there are certain legislative scenes that echo the earlier film, and Spielberg can't seem to completely avoid some of his trademark flourishes, even if they are often quite enjoyable just for the pleasure of recognizing his consistent style. Still, for much of the running time this is a work of almost astonishing restraint, as laconic and homespun as many of the president's storytelling sessions.

For the most part, this is an intensely small scale film; we're cloistered either in the Cabinet room, the White House bedroom, or other such confined environments. While the weight of the nation rests upon the man, we see his struggles directly as they reflect upon his own local surroundings and physical well-being. Save for a few scenes that take place on a battlefield, much of this work could easily be accomplished on stage, yet instead of making the film feel small or inadequate, this restrained setting instead gives weight to the micro expressions and gentle asides that Day-Lewis uses to bring life to his role.

We get to meet Lincoln's challengers and allies, and through these discussions and negotiations the film opens up from stagy setting to a broader context. Tony Kushner's screenplay is based on a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin titled Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and this serves to summarize nicely the tone that the film wishes to set. The film gives a sense of political machination that's rarely given voice on the big screen, and the take on Lincoln's "genius" has less to do with sanctifying the legend and more about exposing the choices that the man undertook, often with the security of his nation in the balance. Focusing on an earlier president, the HBO take on John Adams was a remarkable work that benefited greatly because of its scope as an episodic mini-series - this allowed for moments of contemplation, for legislative flourish, and for detailed negotiations to unfold over time, making their success all the more cathartic for the viewer. It's to the credit of Lincoln's filmmakers that in the relatively short running time of a feature film, we genuinely get a similar sense of the ways in which history is actually written.

Sure, the ending ratchets things up a bit more that it probably needs to, and the tacked-on final scene belies a cinematic catharsis that I'm not entirely sure is necessary for the success of the work. This may not live up to the highs of Spielberg's masterpieces, but it's a far better telling of this story than I was expecting, an extremely engaging and intelligent take on something as ephemeral as the qualities required to marshaling forces to generate a  successful legislative outcome.

When it's at its best, Lincoln exposes the vanities and compulsions of these characters of history, portraying them as human beings prone to outbursts of vitriol or the compromising of their own beliefs. As the president says in one of his stories, simply knowing the direction of north, and steadfastly following that single direction, will not help you avoid the pitfalls along your path. The key is to know the direction you want to get to, and find the best way past these obstacles, so that in the end you are working your way in the direction you wish to head, even if the route is circuitous.

This is both the broad metaphor at the heart of the president's own political career and a nice summation of what the film accomplishes - by holding these characters up to be judged as human beings rather than saints, it has pricked the balloon of myth that surrounds much of what transpired. Lincoln is a film from one of our greatest makers of modern myth, yet its power and success relies on those small moments where we see a single man in a darkened room, alone in his thoughts. This is a man who must wrestle with his demons, trying to be as correct as he can for the sake of his convictions, to steer his nation as far in the right direction as possible without navigating into a morass.

This is an almost religiously revered president portrayed as he's never been portrayed on screen before, a tale told with grace and sophistication. If only for this fact alone, Lincoln is a work deserving of praise.

(Lincoln screened in Toronto last night as a promotional event open to the public. The film opens in Canada and the U.S. in limited release on November 9 before expanding wide on November 16.)

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