By: Joseph Braverman (***)
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a mostly well-made historical drama that pays tribute to the great emancipator of our nation’s history. Tony Kushner’s screenplay is so tacked on with a wealth of political jargon, moving sentiments and rousing speeches that I cannot fathom a situation where the Academy refuses to award this film the Oscar for “Best Adapted Screenplay.” By meaty ambition alone, Kushner will probably be the front runner in the category all year along. It’s just a shame that Steven Spielberg often has a difficult time rallying a tangible pulse to help carry the script.
After a glorious introduction to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abe Lincoln in which he stands beside his Yankee brethren on the battlefield, swelling their pride with words of encouragement and by his presence alone, the film then halts and plods on considerably for the next thirty minutes – several office room scenes undeniably drag, and viewers who doesn’t find history as enthralling as, say…derby racing, will be bogged down by boredom and the desire to nod off. Spielberg lets his office scenes sit there and play out, completely on the sidelines as they either rises to the occasion or fall by the wayside. I appreciate history, but as a moviegoing experience, I expected Lincoln’s scenes to absorb me in a way that both informed and titillated the senses. By refusing to step in and add a Spielbergian oomph to those office meetings, my connection to the material was less concrete than it should have been. It also seemed as though Spielberg were experimenting with a new style altogether, letting those arduous moments just sit there and have us see what may become of them. Like any experiment, there will be instances of trial and error, and thus for every impressive anecdote that Daniel Day-Lewis espouses to the men around him, there are times when the jokes and stories become a bit overbearing and stale (the scene where Abe Lincoln goes on a tangent about George Washington is more taxing than taxes).
Are these shifting predicaments and pacing issues a sign that Spielberg has lost the art of restraint and control? I know many will disagree with me, but I found War Horse to be a bit more effective and approachable than Lincoln only because there’s a confidence that Spielberg has when he directs such emotionally-charged material. He may go for the sappy and sensational, but at least the man can do such work like no other. In Lincoln, I could sense the hesitation from Spielberg. Do I let this scene drag on like so? How long should I wait before cutting? What should I be doing with these gifted actors who litter this frame? It isn’t until Tommy Lee Jones appears, giving the story a much-needed shot of adrenaline (those first twenty-five minutes were one giant sleeping pill), that Lincoln kicks into high-gear once more. Occasionally it drifts back into the mundane, but by and large Tommy Lee Jones’ presence and other dramatic elements that are occurring simultaneously, will shift your interests in a considerably active direction. Tommy Lee Jones is given the most Oscar-baity lines in the film, and his character is indeed Lincoln’s most complex and sympathetic. If The Master continues to wane in audience’s mind, I smell a second Academy Award for Tommy Lee Jones.
And what to make of Daniel Day-Lewis himself as good ol’ Abe? Daniel Day-Lewis is known for his extremities, and thus his best scenes come from Lincoln’s quietest and noisiest moments. When Day-Lewis is asked to carry a portion of the film without either of these two extremities – say a middle-ground passivity, if you will – that is when Day-Lewis’ performance falters considerably. He has a difficult time just being ordinary. There are times during the office segments where you wonder whether Day-Lewis is invested in the material or just nodding off. He has this expression on his face that looks as though he’s in a far away land, and there’s inconsistency to this much-heralded performance. Day-Lewis’ is either incredibly invested, above it all, or hammily asserts himself into the dialogue just when entertainment value is about to take a nosedive. This dropping off and then coming back in full swing annoyed me a bit, I won’t lie. When Daniel Day-Lewis is on, he’s really on – the best scene in the film is when Abe compares a physicist’s theories to the simple truth of human equality – but when he drifts off, not only do others in the ensemble cast overtake your interest, but Day-Lewis himself falls far short of the extraordinary work done by actors this year in leading roles. Logan Lerman’s always-on-point, dynamic performance in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the far stronger work, and Joaquin Phoenix…well, I’ll just say that Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance by comparison is like a fly to a Venus flytrap. In other words, Phoenix swallows up his competition like no other performance in years. Daniel Day-Lewis’ inconsistency as Abe Lincoln may work against him at the Oscars, but I could definitely see as the safer choice for the “Best Actor” win. That is tragic.
In my opinion, the film’s best performance comes from Sally Field, and is the one story element that Spielberg and Kusher absolutely uphold to a standard of integrity that I haven’t seen in many historical films. They could have easily gone the route of portraying Mary Todd Lincoln as some crazy loony with no other response than a piercing wail of screams. History described her “insanity,” so it must be so, right? That’s debatable, considering women’s displays of emotions at this time were labeled as “hysteria” by the men who oppressed them on a daily basis. For all we know, this could be another sexist account that oversimplified Mary Todd Lincoln’s personage. I would not put it past the men of this era. Sally Field gives Mary Todd Lincoln a human dignity that cuts right through the heart. Her scenes are so explosive in emotion, yet so real in their painfulness. It’s a bit odd seeing Sally give it her all in these scenes while Daniel Day-Lewis just responds to her in monotones. As sure as I’ll ever be, I think Spielberg and Sally Field come as close to an accurate portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln in history – more than any other silly textbook or sexist document which described her as “insane.” By my eyes, this is the best supporting performance I’ve seen all year from an actress, and Sally Field is certainly in the hunt for that third Oscar. I wouldn’t argue against it if other work I see from here on out doesn’t measure up.
Overall, Lincoln is a well-crafted historical epic that sweeps you up by its emotions of patriotic pride and human decency. Barring some pacing issues at the beginning, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s highly disposable subplot, and an ending that threatens to steal the thunder of Lincoln’s liberal accomplishments to abolish slavery, Lincoln is an all-around solid effort by Spielberg, if not entirely as revolutionary as its ambitions. You walk away from Lincoln emotionally satiated but also with the feeling that what you’ve seen wasn’t the timeless classic that you had hoped it to be. In fact, Lincoln – which is most likely going to be the most overrated film of the awards season – struggles most with being memorable. Are we going to be talking about the “legendary motion picture” that is Spielberg’s Lincoln in a year or two? My guess: probably not.
After many years of wondering if he’d ever get to it, Steven Spielberg finally made time to film his dream biopic ‘Lincoln’, and boy oh boy was it ever worth the wait. Armed with Daniel Day-Lewis doing tremendous work as the 16th President of the United States and a drive that many claim that the director hasn’t had inside of him since ‘Saving Private Ryan’, Spielberg has crafted arguably one of his best films ever, and certainly one of his very best in some time. This is a nearly flawless film that should have a wide appeal, not just to history junkies or even just to Americans. Along with writer Tony Kushner, Spielberg has opted to focus on the end of Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency, as the Civil War was nearing a conclusion and the fight to end slavery was raging, with the battle to pass the 13th Amendment as the big driving force of the plot. There’s plenty of political parallels to today if you’re looking for it, but beyond that is just a supremely satisfying movie. I expect a whole host of Oscar nominations for the flick, but with it coming out next week, you should just simply mark it down on your calendar as a must see. I loved it as the Secret Screening at the New York Film Festival, and I still love it today…
The time is 1865 (specifically January through April), and there are a number of battles going on. One of course is the Civil War that’s grinding to close between the Union and Confederacy, but there’s also the fight behind closed doors and in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment that would abolish slavery. President Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis) has made this his top priority, to the consternation of his anti-abolishinist Democratic opponents and the enthusiasm of his more liberal Republican allies, no one more than Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). Lincoln has to contend with the politics of getting this done while also ending the war as soon as possible, leading to numerous meetings with Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), plus the founder of the Republican Party Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook). Seward in fact dispatches some political operatives (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and James Spader) to try and get the votes necessary. At home though, things are no less stable as Lincoln bickers with his wife Mary (Sally Field) as well as contends with the desire of his oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to enlist in the war. Of course it all comes down to a climax historians all know is coming, but Spielberg and crew are able to not just make this a history lesson, but a portrait of one of the most admired men in history as well. With DDL in the role, they don’t disappoint in the least.
Daniel Day-Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln here in the title role, doing meticulous research that led to not only one of the best performances of the year and a surefire nomination for Best Actor, but also one of Day-Lewis’ best pieces of acting ever, which is high praise indeed. He gives us a Lincoln with an historically accurate voice, a proclivity for telling jokes at odd times, and man unlike what you read about as a child. This is a captivating performance and perhaps even one for the ages. When you see Day-Lewis on screen, you can’t look away. He’s definitely the top draw, but the entire ensemble is very good, led by Tommy Lee Jones doing the best work he’s done in a while. More of a moral crusader to end slavery than anyone else, his character is also a crabby old man, which suits Jones perfectly. I fully expect a nomination for him as well. Sally Field could be in line for honors too by making Mary as sympathetic a character as one could expect. The film avoids some of her real life troubles, but she does work really well as a sounding board for Lincoln. Field and Day-Lewis have strong chemistry as well, which was essential. Among the rest of the cast, I was impressed with James Spader and Jared Harris more than I was expecting, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a victim of his character being shortchanged. The ensemble also includes strong turns from the aforementioned John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, and David Strathairn, plus Lee Pace and Michael Stuhlbarg, with the cast being rounded out by the likes of Joseph Cross, Adam Driver, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, S. Epatha Merkerson, and David Oyelowo. The head of the class is made up of Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones, but everyone is clearly doing their part.
For everyone who thought that Steven Spielberg was just going through the motions last year and being too manipulative in his direction of ‘War Horse’, this movie is the exact counterpoint to that. Every ounce of his effort here is filled with passion, and it shows on the screen. He’s made this film feel both epic and intimate, which is no small feat. Armed with the terrific script that Tony Kushner wrote and based in part on the Doris Kearns Goodwin book ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln’, Spielberg has crafted a movie that speaks volumes about our current political landscape, but in a timeless sort of way. You could take the events and apply them to the recent fight over health care in America if you so desire, or the impending battle of same sex marriage rights, but the genius of the flick is that it’s not reliant upon that to work. Spielberg and Kushner have just made a wonderful movie with plenty of great roles for the cast. Short of a slightly too long running time, this is a nearly perfect movie.
In terms of Oscar possibilities, I’d say we’re looking at double digit nominations. You can mark down the flick to show up in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay categories for sure, with Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and some combination of techs as well looking likely. There could be as many as 12 or 13 nods in total, but I’d say it’s good for a least a half dozen, and likely more.
Overall, when ‘Lincoln’ opens in theaters we’re getting not just a terrific Oscar contender, but a great portrait of Abraham Lincoln as well. I loved the movie and am overjoyed that audiences are about to get to see it as well. This is one of the best films of the year. It’s in my top 10 right now, but if it winds up missing, that’s more a testament to this year’s quality than anything against ‘Lincoln’. Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, and company have hit a home run.
Less a biography than an exploration of a specific time in the life of President Abraham Lincoln, the 16th leader of the United States, Steven Spielberg’s stately film is superb without being overly reverential. Watching the picture I was reminded of the work of James Ivory, who guided A Room with a View (1986), Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993) to Academy Award nominations for Best Film and Best Director. In a sense Spielberg has made a film that resembles the sort of film Ivory makes, keeping his characters at a distance, never allowing the audience to get too close. Some call that sort of filmmaking cold or remote but if it works for the film and the characters within, so what?
In trying to understand the late great President I think holding Lincoln at a distance is an act of genius. Who really knew Lincoln? Historians have dubbed him unknowable and there are many contrary reports and writings as to the character of the President. What seems to be agreed upon was that he was an extraordinary man, leader, and father, yet struggled as husband with fits of melancholy. Lincoln himself described his character as “strange”! Could it have been that Lincoln cared so for his vision of America it tore apart his soul? Perhaps, I do not claim to know. Being a Canadian, the office of the Presidency fascinates me as do the men who have held that esteemed title. History has allowed Lincoln to be considered among the finest of Presidents, and for the first time on screen here is a film that allows us to see him, hear him as he was, as Day-Lewis creates what I believe to the closest incarnation of Lincoln on film. Yet that said, as much as Day-Lewis allows the viewer to know Lincoln, there is an extent to which we are permitted to know the man; to their credit, they allow Lincoln to retain some of his mystery. He remains unknowable which adds to his legend.
Considering Lincoln was such a beloved man there are very few good films about his life. DW Griffith made Abraham Lincoln (1930) with Walter Huston, Henry Fonda was a superb Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) for John Ford, and Raymond Massey did good work in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). On the small screen Sam Waterston was impressive in a TV mini-series, and Gregory Peck portrayed a deep voiced (which is false) stereotypical Lincoln in the Blue and the Grey. With more a year of research into Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis found that historians of the time described the man’s voice as high and reedy, that when he laughed he brayed like a mule, and that when he settled into depression, he was detached from the world around him, lost in his thoughts.
Day-Lewis brilliantly brings Lincoln to life at a time when the man was struggling to hold the nation together. With the Civil War raging, he was fighting for the Emancipation of the slaves, which was very unpopular in the South, and had its detractors within the government. The actor is electrifying in the scenes where he tries to push through the 13th Amendment, which abolishes slavery, though the President knows he must do this before the war ends. Then the actor switches gears and becomes the folksy, charming Lincoln, the charismatic storyteller who loved the people as much as he loved them. Day-Lewis captures the sadness of the man, who never overcame the death of his son and struggled in his marriage to Mary Todd, who openly blamed him for the boys’ death. When Lincoln died it was said, “now he belongs to the ages” and that is exactly what I think of Day-Lewis’ performance, it is one for the ages.
Spielberg does something rather extraordinary here as a director, subtly holding back on the visuals and allowing the actors to take center stage, something he has rarely done in his work. The film unfolds, not surprising like a play at times, from a dense and often beautiful screenplay from Tony Kushner who wrote both the play and the mini-series Angels in America (2004). The writer provides the actors with extraordinary speeches in the House, and often a great deal of humor in the film, which certainly helps bring some levity to the political world we are in. Spielberg never falls into the trap he did with Amistad (1997) in “drying the film out” as he stated after the release of that picture. Kushner and Spielberg worked together on the brilliant Munich (2005) as well, and the writer has been working on this film for just under a decade. I was surprised to find so much humor in the script, brought gently to life by the actors, Day-Lewis in particular.
With a cast of great American character actors, the stand outs are Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens, an abolitionist who Lincoln feared would alienate those who believed in banning slavery, and the superb Sally Field as Mary Todd, though Field is so good I wished there were more of her. For many years historians have believed Todd to have been mad, but here she is presented as a grieving mother given to dark mood swings and erratic behavior.
Lincoln stands as one of Spielberg’s’ finest achievements and is a strong candidate for the best film of the year. It has all the ingredients the Academy likes, and had it been made in the eighties it might have been a shoo in for the Best Picture award. I mean, my God, they gave Gandhi (1982) Best Film and it was not one tenth the film this is. It will need rave reviews to push it further into the Oscar race, and the love of the Academy, which it might get. For me, it is easily among the years very best, and come the end of December, just might top that list.
Daniel Day-Lewis seems headed towards a third Academy Award for Best Actor…well deserved. It is often as though Spielberg had wielded magic to find a time machine and plunged us back into history via this machine, with his cameras at the ready to bring life back to us. If this is not how it was, it is certainly as close as anyone has ever come.
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