Friday, November 23, 2012

An Afternoon with Lincoln

There are many reasons why I love this time of year.  I love the feeling of putting on a thick, comfy turtleneck sweater and sipping hot chocolate.  I love waking up on cold Saturdays to spend the day coaching my incredible speech team.  I love that peppermint is used to flavor everything from coffee to ice cream.  And I love the fact that there is suddenly a glut of great movies to track down and see.

Granted, the demands of work don't often leave me with a lot of time to go see movies.  Since the start of the school year, I've only had time to go to the movies once -- stealing away the weekend after my birthday to go see the brilliant Argo.  (Seriously, Ben Affleck is an incredible director.)  With a long holiday weekend, though, comes the opportunity to carve out a little time to hit the multiplex rather than the Black Friday sales. (Of course, I DID spend a little time carving out some deals, too.)  Today, while the masses were pushing and shoving their way to cheap video games and high def tv's, I spent a couple hours with Abraham Lincoln.

Going in, I expected greatness.  When Steven Spielberg puts his mind to it, he is capable of great filmmaking.    Sure, there are times when he indulges his more sentimental side and times when his impulse for film as spectacle outweighs his impulse for film as art.  There are definitely times when Spielberg's desire to make films of great importance yield preachy, treacly works where entertainment is lost in the sermon.  At his best, though, Spielberg can walk the line between art and entertainment in a masterful way unlike many other directors out there.  Fortunately, Lincoln shows Spielberg at his very best.

Part of the success of the film lies in the choice made by Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner to eschew the trappings of the standard biopic.  We don't get shots of young Lincoln splitting rails or stealing Mary Todd away from future political rival Stephen Douglass.  Instead, the film begins in the last months of Lincoln's life.  With the end of the Civil War clearly in sight and the Southern states poised to return to the Union, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis in a spectacular performance) realizes the window is quickly closing during which he can pass the 13th Amendment which will end slavery.  The film tracks the backroom deals that Lincoln, his staff, and his allies in Congress (led by Tommy Lee Jones as crusading abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens) used to win the 2/3 vote necessary to amend the constitution before a Confederate delegation can arrive in Washington to negotiate the terms of surrender.  At the same time, Lincoln faces his own personal issues with his emotionally turbulent wife Mary (Sally Field) and the desires of his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to join his contemporaries in the war effort rather than wasting away in college.

There is so much to love about the film.  Let's start with the performances.  Much has been written already about Daniel Day-Lewis's performance, so there's not a lot I can add to the deafening praise other than to say that it is a completely brilliant performance.  Day-Lewis completely immerses himself in the role and creates a Lincoln who is part political strategist/part civil rights crusader/part folksy professor.  I could have spent hours just listening to his Lincoln tell stories.  There is a beautiful blend of gravitas and humor to this Lincoln that gives us both the legend as well as the man.  If Day-Lewis doesn't win the Oscar for this, I can't wait to see the performance that beats him because it will surely be breathtaking.  Also sure to be Oscar nominees (if not winners) are Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field who turn in the best work of their careers.  They are surrounded by a veritable smorgasbord of "Oh, that guy is in this?"  James Spader, Bruce McGill, Lee Pace, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson are among the many supporting actors who create what has to be the strongest ensemble in years.

Kushner's script gives this cast a lot of meat to chew on and rich characters to develop.  It can't be easy to create suspense in a biopic.  Ideally, the audience all knows how things turn out, and yet there I was biting my lip with anxiety, wondering if the vote to end slavery would actually come out in Lincoln's favor.  Yes, intellectually I knew it did.  I know my American history and my constitution.  And yet I found myself tallying right along with Mary Todd Lincoln as the number of needed "ayes" left dwindled down.  I love, too, that Kushner and Spielberg sidestepped the "big moments."  We don't get the Gettysburg Address beyond a couple starry-eyed soldiers reciting it to Lincoln, who seems a bit uncomfortable with the celebrity adoration.  We don't get the assassination or even the collective grief following Lincoln's death.  We get private moments or alternative views, learning of Lincoln's shooting through his young son Tad.  What I loved about this approach is that the script assumed its audience's intelligence, assumed we knew the details of the assassination and the other "big moments" in Lincoln's life.  It's so refreshing to not have Hollywood pander for once.

Spielberg's attention to detail, as always, dazzles.  Even in his worst films, you can't deny the guy has an eye for truth and accuracy.  The art direction is gorgeous, even when portraying the often grimy reality of every day life in 1865.  Historically accurate recreations of Lincoln's office, White House rooms, and Congressional chambers and offices immerse the viewer in this world.  It is a beautiful film in every sense of the word whether we're seeing beautiful White House quarters or grim battlefields.

There's a reason why this film is already being spoken of with such reverence and leads many critics' lists for top Oscar contenders.  It is proof that great American filmmaking is still possible, that movies can still mean something more than blowing stuff up or keeping the kids entertained.  Spielberg doesn't need gimmicks or 3D glasses to enthrall.  He just needs Abraham Lincoln.

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