Saturday, November 17, 2012

Movie Review: "Lincoln" (2012)

After more than a decade of gestation, Steven Spielberg's bio-pic of Abraham Lincoln, based (as the credits say, "in part") on Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-selling book Team of Rivals, offers a sympathetic and humanizing portrait of the 16th President.  The 2 1/2 hour film, which takes place entirely during the final four months of Lincoln's life, focuses on the contentious debate in the House of Representatives over the proposed 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, including how it might affect efforts to encourage the Confederates to surrender.

Rather directly, the movie seeks to explore the man behind the monuments and myths.  Much like the famous Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, where Daniel Chester French's massive marble Lincoln sits between full-text inscriptions of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, Spielberg's movie opens with the war-time president talking with two African-American Union soldiers, who begin reciting the Gettysburg Address, and concludes with the last third of the Second Inaugural.

With these speeches and snippets of surrounding dialogue, screenwriter Tony Kushner bookends the film with the common schoolhouse portrait of Lincoln.  Between the famous words and their magnanimity, though, Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose previous film experience was scripting Spielberg's 2005 movie "Munich," breathes life into the mythic figure.  Through personal interactions with his family, encounters with common soldiers and citizens, and meetings with other government leaders and generals, Lincoln here is funny, passionate, beaten down, wise, cunning, and occasionally misunderstood and unapproachable.

Central to this is two-time Academy Award-winner Daniel Day-Lewis, who almost certainly will be nominated again for his performance.  In addition to the brilliant make-up artistry that makes Day-Lewis look uncannily like the often-photographed Lincoln throughout, the famously intense method actor inhabits the role fully, with wit, determination, quiet intelligence, weariness, and a surprising steadiness that manifests itself, intriguingly, in the ease of a man completely comfortable with himself in every situation he faces, whether political, military, or personal.  

Much will likely be made of the high voice Day-Lewis employs, especially by those who have heard actors portray Lincoln with rich baritone voices on television and in previous movies -- or even at Disney's Hall of Presidents.  However, Day-Lewis has relied on the surviving testimony about Lincoln's voice, which says that Lincoln had a high voice, sometimes almost squeaky, and spoke with a Western twang that always turned words like "scared" into "skeered."  (Personally, I think that the voice Day-Lewis uses is a bit more polished than I imagine from contemporary descriptions of Lincoln, but it is clear that the actor has skillfully crafted his performance from these descriptions.)

A key insight into Lincoln's character in this film, and the point at which the movie "Lincoln" is closest to the spirit of Team of Rivals, is that much is revealed through Lincoln's interactions with other equally strong people.  One of the many strengths of Kushner's fine screenplay is the character development of those around Lincoln, especially his wife Mary, son Robert, Secretary of State William Seward, and influential Republican patriarch Preston Blair, but also of other identifiable historic figures with less screen time.

Spielberg has cast strong actors to portray these many roles, and the ensemble gives consistently excellent performances.  While Tommy Lee Jones perhaps has the showiest supporting role as the outspoken Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn and Hal Holbrook (a portrayer of Lincoln himself on stage and screen) find authenticity as Seward and Blair, respectively.  The most surprising supporting performance, owing in equal parts to the strength of Kushner's script as to the acting, is Sally Field as Mary Lincoln.  Although she is too old for the character (which is noticeable given that most of the other actors are pretty close to the age of the historic figures they portray), she not only gracefully embodies the First Lady's contradictory personality traits, she demonstrates some of the gifts -- noticeably a passion, and relative skill, for politics -- that must have served as the foundation for the lasting, though sometimes stormy, marriage between Abraham and Mary Lincoln.

Such character details, too many to mention, are but one aspect of the depth of research evident in virtually every aspect of the film.  While there are a few mistakes and inaccuracies, the movie is overwhelmingly rooted in well-documented details -- a point made clear in the credits where more than a dozen noted Lincoln and Civil War historians are thanked for their assistance.  From the set design -- including an amazing recreation of Lincoln's White House office -- to the period music incorporated into John Williams' outstanding score to the frequent inclusion of contemporary-recorded comments in the screenplay to the  appearance, dress, and accents of the large supporting cast (even those with few lines), the film is consistently, and by Hollywood standards almost fanatically, accurate.

Even the feel of the movie points to this historical accuracy, which is a credit to Spielberg.  Unlike some films "based on historic events" that simplify characters and plot details for clarity, there is a complexity, even messiness, to "Lincoln" that evokes the turbulence of January 1865.  At times dialogue is overlapping or even muttered inaudibly, and there are disorienting, quick emotional shifts from the deadly serious to the ridiculous, as when yet another public reception painfully reminds both Lincolns of their son Willie's death during a previous formal White House dinner, but they must they must immediately happily welcome their guests in a receiving line.

With the usual top-notch production values of a Spielberg movie, added to Kushner's strong screenplay and the excellent acting ensemble headed by Day-Lewis, "Lincoln" is a remarkable film.  Despite its short time span, it has an epic vision of the personalities and circumstances surrounding the central figure.  And in the midst of those dramatic circumstances, it offers a compelling and vivid presentation of Lincoln the man, quirky and wise, compassionate and irreverent, and in some ways more impressive than even the marble statues.

No comments: