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Far from being a traditional biographical drama, Lincoln dedicates itself to doing something very few Hollywood films have ever attempted, much less succeeded at: showing, from historical example, how our political system works in an intimate procedural and personal manner. That the case in point is the hair-breadth passage by the House of Representatives of the epochal 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and that the principal orchestrator is President Abraham Lincoln in the last days of his life endow Steven Spielberg’s film with a great theme and subject, which are honored with intelligence, humor and relative restraint. Tony Kushner’s densely packed script has been directed by Spielberg in an efficient, unpretentious way that suggests Michael Curtiz at Warner Bros. in the 1940s, right down to the rogue’s gallery of great character actors in a multitude of bewhiskered supporting roles backing up a first-rate leading performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. The wall-to-wall talk and lack of much Civil War action might give off the aroma of schoolroom medicine to some, but the elemental drama being played out, bolstered by the prestige of the participants and a big push by Disney, should make this rare film about American history pay off commercially.
First unveiled at an unannounced sneak preview at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 8, Lincoln will receive its official world premiere on Nov. 8 at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles in advance of its Nov. 9 limited opening and wider release Nov. 16.
Concentrating on the tumultuous period between January 1865 and the conclusion of the Civil War on April 9 and Lincoln’s assassination five days later, on Good Friday, this is history that plays out mostly in wood-paneled rooms darkened by thick drapes and heavy furniture and, increasingly, in the intimate House chamber where the strength of the anti-abolitionist Democrats will be tested against Lincoln’s moderates and the more zealous anti-slavery radicals of the young Republican Party.
Occasionally, there are glimpses of life outside the inner sanctums of government, first on the battlefield, where black Union troops join in the vicious hand-to-hand combat where the mud renders the gray and blue uniforms all but indistinguishable, then in the dusty streets of the nation’s capital and in the verdant surrounding countryside.
The stiffest challenge facing Kushner was to lay out enough exposition in the early going to give viewers their bearings while simultaneously jump-starting the film’s dramatic movement. Quite a bit of information simply has to be dropped in quickly to get it over with — Mary Todd Lincoln’s continuing depression over the death of a son three years earlier, her husband’s re-election the previous November, the need for Lincoln to win over some 20 Democrats to achieve the two-thirds majority required to pass — but the estimable playwright who won a Pulitzer for 1992’s Angels in America mostly manages to cover so many mandatory issues by plausibly making them the subjects of the characters’ vivid conversation.
Particularly helpful in this regard are the intimate talks between Lincoln (Day-Lewis) and his most valued adviser, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), as well with his party’s founder Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook, a famous Lincoln in his own time). Having signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and gotten easy Senate passage of the 13th Amendment the previous April, Lincoln is determined to push the House to act quickly and put his signature on the new law by Feb. 1, before the war is likely to end.
What follows is a course in political persuasion in all its forms: cajoling, intimidation, promises, horse-trading, strong-arming and intellectual persuasion, down-home style. In conversation and physical movement, Lincoln is a deliberate fellow who takes his time, a country lawyer whose rumpled exterior conceals abiding principles and an iron will, a man of no personal vanity or fancy education who is nevertheless unafraid to cite Euclid, notably in his equation of equality = fairness = justice, with which Lincoln frames the slavery issue.
Fundamentally unhappy in his family life with his almost continually complaining wife Mary (a very good Sally Field), who despairs of being condemned to “four more years in this terrible house,” and oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a college lad desperate to enlist in the Army over his parents’ objections, Lincoln seems to find the greatest pleasure in spinning amusing life-lesson yarns dating to his lawyering days. The film accrues much-needed levity from these interludes, less from the stories themselves than from the reactions of his captive audiences; by the third or fourth time Lincoln embarks on one of his tales, the polite attention paid by his listeners has descended to “here-he-goes-again” eye-rolling and ill-concealed smirking.
As he demonstrated in Angels in America, Kushner — who co-wrote Munich for Spielberg — is adept at juggling a huge number of characters without confusion. One of the main subplots details the efforts of three Republican roustabouts (James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) to use any means necessary to change some minds on the Democratic side while at Lincoln’s behest delaying a high-level Confederate delegation making its way to Washington to talk peace. There also are occasional glimpses of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) trying to discern whether the South is ready to call it quits.
But increasingly, attention focuses on Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a lifelong activist for absolute equality among the races philosophically opposed to going along with a watered-down law. The loss of his and other radical Republicans’ support would spell disaster for Lincoln who, in all events, faces a massive challenge that calls on all the political, personal and persuasive skills he has honed over a lifetime.
At the film’s center, then, lies one of the remarkable characters in world history at the critical moment of his life. As Walt Whitman said of Lincoln (as he did of himself), “he contained multitudes,” and Day-Lewis’ sly, slow-burn performance wonderfully fulfills this description. Gangly, grizzled and, as his wife was known to say, “not pretty,” this Lincoln plainly shows his humble origins and is more disheveled than his Washington colleagues. With an astonishing physical resemblance to the real man, Day-Lewis excels when shifting into what was perhaps Lincoln’s most comfortable mode, that of frisky storyteller, especially in the way he seems to anticipate and relish his listeners’ reactions.
But he also is a hard-nosed negotiator with that critical attribute of great politicians in a democracy: an unyielding inner core of principle cloaked by a strategic willingness to compromise in the interests of getting his way. A long scene in which he hashes things out with his cabinet (the single most explicit evocation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, the one credited partial source of the screenplay) vividly exhibits his skills in action. The rare moments when Lincoln loses his temper are startling but also hint that his outbursts might be preplanned for effect.
Lincoln seems most ill-at-ease in domestic exchanges with his family, especially with his harping wife, to whose repetitive complaints her husband cannot possibly invent any new answers, even if her sorrow is rooted in genuine depression.
The dramatic and raucous vote on the 13th Amendment is both exhilarating and unexpectedly humorous, with much shouting, threatening and fist-waving, fence-straddling Democrats being shamed by their colleagues and a gallery audience (including some blacks) hanging on every yeah and nay, climaxed, of course, by the exaltation of victory. Appomattox, with proud Gen. Robert E. Lee high on his white horse, is briefly shown, and Kushner and Spielberg have invented a novel way of portraying the fateful events at Ford’s Theatre that doesn’t even show John Wilkes Booth.
For whatever reason, the filmmakers have skipped the ripe opportunity to portray one of the most extraordinary and haunting episodes of this entire period, that of Lincoln’s nearly solitary early-morning walk through the streets of Richmond. The partly burning city had just been abandoned by the Confederate government, and Lincoln increasingly became surrounded by awestruck, suddenly free blacks who could scarcely believe who had just entered their midst, some reacting as if he were Jesus incarnate. Finally arriving at the capitol building, he entered the office of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, sat in his chair and quietly drank a glass of water.
In the event, Spielberg directs in a to-the-point, self-effacing style, with only minor instances of artificially inflated emotionalism and a humor that mostly undercuts eruptions of self-importance. It’s a conscientious piece of work very much in the service of the material, in the manner of the good old Hollywood pros, without frills or grandiosity. At the same time, however, it lacks that final larger dimension and poetic sense such as can be found in John Ford’s great 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln, to which Spielberg’s film is a biographical and thematic bookend.
Further helping matters is the mostly subdued score by John Williams, whose over-the-top contribution to War Horse last year proved so counterproductive to that film’s effect. Working predominantly in shades of blue and black, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski takes a similarly straightforward approach, while the period evocation achieved by many hands led by production designer Rick Carter, costume designer Joanna Johnston and the makeup and hair team is detailed and lacking in embalmed fastidiousness.
Other than Day-Lewis, acting honors go to Jones, who clearly relishes the rich role of Stevens and whose crusty smarts prove both formidable and funny. Very much a good guy here, Stevens in earlier cinematic days was always portrayed as an extremist villain, both in The Birth of a Nation and in the odd 1943 Andrew Johnson biographical drama Tennessee Johnson.
Venue: AFI Film Festival (closing night)
Release: Friday, Nov. 9 (Disney/Touchstone)
Production: DreamWorks, 20th Century Fox, Reliance Entertainment, Amblin Entertainment, Kennedy/Marshall Productions
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Joseph Cross, Jared Harris, Lee Pace
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Tony Kushner, based in part on the the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy
Executive producers: Daniel Lupi, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King
Director of photography: Janusz Kaminski
Production designer: Rick Carter
Costume designer: Joanna Johnston
Editor: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams
Rated PG-13, 149 minutes
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