As grand, solemn and measured theater Steven Spielberg’s excellent “Lincoln” is as contemplative and alive a film as you’ll see, and one of the five or six best that Mr. Spielberg has made. Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing as the 16th president of the United States, in the year’s finest performance — though not the very best that Mr. Day-Lewis has ever rendered on film. Mr. Day-Lewis, a classic Method actor, bathes himself in Lincoln’s cadences, breaths, body language, speech patterns, humor and pauses, and spent years mired in Mr. Lincoln’s skin. The results are utterly staggering, almost creepy — speaking volumes to the actor’s complete commitment.
This absorbing, layered and dialogue-driven masterwork shines, feeling less like a Spielberg film and more like a Tony Kushner theater play. Mr. Kushner wrote the sterling dialogue, based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Team Of Rivals. The award-winning playwright also co-wrote Mr. Spielberg’s great 2005 film “Munich”.
“Lincoln” covers January and April of 1865, two months that would change the United States forever. The former month, in which the bitterly-divided House of Representatives’ vote on the 13th Amendment sealed passage of the act ending slavery in America; the latter month in which President Lincoln was assassinated during his second term. Mr. Kushner packs in pre-1865 details as prologue for this robust and majestic story, and the entire cast, notably David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones as Alexander Seward and Thaddeus Stevens respectively, are excellent. The trio of aforementioned actors are sure to be nominated for Oscars in January, as is Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln’s forthright spouse.
The story is a sweeping and involving look not only at the science and machinations of politicking but also, as Ms. Goodwin alludes to, rivalries and tensions within and without political families, and within nuclear families. “Lincoln” does a fine job of defining these tensions and making them entertaining and fascinating. Mr. Strathairn’s careful, precise work, subtly rendered, provides an insight into Lincoln’s circle, not all of whom agreed upon the method and procedure of how Lincoln governed or approached ending the Civil War and freeing enslaved Africans, among other issues.
One of the major (and most distressing) omissions of “Lincoln” however, is that of Frederick Douglass, the African-American abolitionist and former slave who educated himself while in slavery and became an influential leader and constant pusher of Lincoln to end slavery. Mr. Douglass was a very important figure during and preceding the months chronicled in the film. Mr. Lincoln himself had in fact been more concerned about the state of the Union than ending enslavement, and a look at Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States and other books reveals this in a blunt, candid way, including in some of Lincoln’s speeches.
Curiously, Mr. Kushner and Mr. Spielberg chose to omit Ms. Goodwin’s book’s 30-odd pages of mentions and/or discussions of Mr. Douglass, an omission that does a great disservice to the discussion Mr. Spielberg so eloquently details on screen. A film that unfolds over a two-hour, 30 minute period could and should have spent at least five or ten minutes including such a key, significant figure. (Even the flawed pageantry of Ed Zwick’s film “Glory” takes a few brief moments to include a scene featuring an actor playing Frederick Douglass, even if it is a largely ceremonial appearance.)
That said, Mr. Spielberg does incorporate some of the issues of Mr. Douglass’ cause: equal pay for black troops in the Union army; spoken via David Oyelowo (“Red Tails”, “Middle Of Nowhere”, “The Paperboy”) and Colman Domingo (“Red Hook Summer”) in an opening scene, and conflates some of Mr. Douglass’ abolitionist arguments and places them in the mouths of several white abolitionists. Mr. Kushner’s script introduces many political figures as larger-than-life hypocritical beings, grounded in the mire, some literally. Others are much closer to the people, more relatable and less distant from their constituents. The figures of “Lincoln” are organic, evolving, yet fatuous to a degree, the latter type of political figure utilized mainly as theatre to entertain 21st century filmgoing audiences.
“Lincoln” has great relevance as a film to the here-and-now, particularly in light of the re-election of President Barack Obama, whose adopted home state is also Illinois. Despite the differences in political party affiliation (Lincoln was a Republican), Mr. Obama faces the same demonization that Lincoln endured: that he is somehow an “other” or something to be feared or suspicious of. (A leading pro-slavery Democrat in the film labels Lincoln as “Africanus” instead of Abraham.) The passion of the very fights in the American political process over enslavement and the Civil War and the detail to them as depicted in “Lincoln” could just as well be the fights over Medicare reform (aka Obamacare) in 2010, or the debt ceiling (2011), or the fiscal cliff (2012 and likely 2013).
And the racist secessionist movement Lincoln faced in his day when considering the 13th Amendment has resurfaced today in no less than 15 American states. (Since Mr. Obama’s re-election, Texas, for example, has collected 120,000 signatures so far from residents supporting seceding from the United States.) Yet now, as then, such racist undercurrents and overtness exists within a progressive, forward-thinking populace. In Mr. Spielberg’s film when Ms. Lincoln says that “the people love my husband”, you can’t help but picture President Obama, a beloved figure by the much of the American public (i.e., Republican pizzeria owner/bear-hugger in Florida, etc.) despite the persistent and blatant racist hatreds in America toward Mr. Obama, and the bitter, constant efforts to delegitimize his presidency by some very vocal Republicans and celebrity whack-a-doodles on Twitter and elsewhere.
If nothing else, “Lincoln” is the very nascence of an American civics lesson, one that is instructive to today’s political theater: as calming antidote to the manic frenzy of 24-hour cable news TV network “gotcha” partisanship, split-screen insanity and Tea Party boorishness. “Lincoln” looks incisively at the dry, deliberative process of carrot-and-stick politics, self-loathing, idiocy, sacrifice and reverence as the essence of democracy and American can-do even as it tackles the very heart of what is America’s original and enduring sin: slavery.
“Lincoln” is a far from complete film, but it is one of the most absorbing and effective bits of filmmaking about the American political process. While it is sometimes imperfect and occasionally questionable it is always prescient, thought-provoking and insightful. The hagiography, pastoral scenery, symbolism and emotional wallowing Mr. Spielberg often indulges (most recently “War Horse”) is largely absent here, save for two brief flourishes. Mr. Spielberg has directed an important, matter-of-fact effort that is beautiful to behold on the big screen, a must-see for all audiences. It’s a film you’ll want to see at least twice.
— At the Presidio, area theaters
Read original review here
Also with: Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Lee Pace, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jackie Earle Haley, Gloria Reuben, Jared Harris, Bruce McGill, Walton Goggins, Bill Camp.
“Lincoln” is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language. The film’s running time is two hours and 30 minutes.
For more of Omar’s film stories, movie reviews and interviews visit his Popcorn Reel website and watch his unscripted film reviews on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter.
For a list of Omar’s rootshed.com stories and film reviews, click here. He’s been a contributing film critic for “Ebert Presents At The Movies” on PBS television and is a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
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