Sunday, January 20, 2013

LINCOLN (2012): With Malice Toward None

Abraham Lincoln is probably the most mythical character in American History.  When I was a child, I read about how he carried a hot potato in his hand in the morning while walking to school to keep warm, how as a merchant he walked six miles to return the ten cents he overcharged a customer, how as a lawyer he was sanctioned five dollars for telling a joke only to have the judge return the money when he realized how funny the joke was, and how as President he never turned a visitor away, no matter who the person may have been, that came to see him.  The myths are still in play in Steven Spielberg’s movie, Lincoln, it’s just that the myths are somewhat more sophisticated and more aimed at a movie audience.
Still, just as the man himself, Lincoln as a movie is something special.  There’s little cynicism in the film, the portrait of Lincoln is thorough and well-rounded, and Daniel Day Lewis is exceptional in the role.  Perhaps most surprisingly is that fact that Lincoln is a relatively humble little film (for being 150 minutes long).  Rather than turn this into an epic film about the entire Civil War, Spielberg focuses specifically in on the passage of the 13th Amendment – an important historical event, no doubt, but hardly the type of theme that is going to draw in large crowds.
In the movie, while ignoring the advice of his cabinet and turning towards the assistance of some questionable but able lobbyists led by W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Lincoln is able to get enough votes in Congress to have the 13th Amendment enacted.  Lincoln especially exasperates his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), who admires but can never quite figure out the genius of Lincoln.  Because while others were more concerned with the ending of the war, Lincoln desired the passing of the 13th Amendment to have something in writing as to why the Civil War had been fought and continuing on for four years.
The relationship that Lincoln had with his family including his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and his youngest and mischievous son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), is well done melodrama that never becomes too maudlin.  Sally Field was surprisingly sympathetic as the wife that too often has been portrayed as a neurotic mad woman.  And though the Lincoln as played by Daniel Day Lewis never departs too much from the persona created by Carl Sandburg as the folksy and wisdom loving leader, the actor is compellingly able to put on display the mind, emotions and aspirations of the great President.
The wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the screen involving all other characters besides Lincoln would be all right in an average film, but it somewhat distracts the viewer here.  The Congressional banter that revolves around the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens played by Tommy Lee Jones mostly comes across as bad farce.  The necessity for passing the 13th Amendment coupled (and sometimes opposed) with the strong desire of a nation to end the war never get the attention that such themes deserve - unless the character of Lincoln is actually shown on the screen.  Besides the acting of Daniel Day Lewis, I’m guessing the success of Lincoln’s dialogue in the film is mostly due to the screenplay by Tony Kushner.  Kushner, an avowed homosexual, had his own personal reasons for participating in this film.
Now I’ve never been a great Spielberg admirer.  His talent has always been in making a film look great rather than telling a story that truly is great.  Spielberg as a storyteller, even in a movie as important as Schindler’s List, has always played it safe.  The only truly controversial movie he ever made was Munich, and in that movie he failed to convince.  Lincoln also plays it safe, but it’s a moving film that at least portrays one great man convincingly.  If this is one more side to the myth of the Great Emancipator (which it probably is), at least it’s a believable myth.
Lincoln is a formula movie with the good guys and bad guys thoroughly entrenched, but it’s still the best formula movie that has come out in years.  With a movie like Argo winning the Golden Globes Award as Best Picture and Silver Linings Playbook also nominated for an Oscar, it appears that we have another year of mostly average movies receiving all the accolades.  Perhaps only Zero Dark Thirty would be an unconventional choice for best picture.  Still, especially considering the alternatives, I would applaud the choice of Lincoln if it was to win the best picture award at the Academy Awards.  Maybe at some point the Oscar ceremony could even gain the credibility that it hardly ever has deserved.
January 20, 2013

© Robert S. Miller 2013