Tuesday, November 20, 2012

LINCOLN Belongs to the Ages

A big historical drama, all the more weighty and impressive for how simple and contained it feels, Lincoln is an epic of process and detail, unabashedly, unashamedly intellectual and literary, crafted by a master filmmaker in full command of his cinematic powers. Like War Horse, last year’s Spielbergian historical epic, Lincoln is beautifully old-fashioned and powerfully new. The life of Abraham Lincoln is hardly an inauspicious subject matter for a film. No less than John Ford and D.W. Griffith have used the iconic president – routinely considered one of, if not the, greatest American president – as material for impressive filmmaking and biographies in general often lends itself to static, overwhelmingly uneven, films. The genius of Spielberg’s Lincoln is the way he, and Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter Tony Kushner, narrow the focus, suggesting a large canvas with precise brushstrokes of great style.

The very first scene – after a harrowing, closely shot sequence of soldiers fighting with ugly, personal violence ankle deep in sickly grey mud – recognizes Lincoln as icon, as a stovepipe-hat-wearing, Emancipation-Proclamation-signing, quotable rhetorician of the public imagination. The camera watches adoring soldiers, some black and some white, who, as we’ll soon learn, have memorized the Gettysburg address. As the dialogue plays out, Lincoln remains off-screen for quite some time, slowly revealed sans hat, sitting casually, but leaning slightly forward, listening with evident interest. The Lincoln that the film proceeds to reveal scrapes away the fawning legacy and replaces him with an even more glorious portrait of a human man, smart, charming, troubled, wise, and crushed down under the burdens of the job and anxieties in the face of overwhelming uncertainty.

This portrayal’s greatness rests, first and foremost, with Daniel Day-Lewis in a performance so good that it could more accurately be called an inhabitation. Will I ever cease being surprised by Day-Lewis? Having already earned his reputation as one of the very best actors of his generation several times over, this feat of acting is no less completely convincing. From the first second he appears on screen, I forgot I was watching a performance, let alone a performance so remarkable and convincing that it’s as if a 150-year-old photograph has come to life. No, from his first to his final moments on screen he is fully and completely Abraham Lincoln. This is acting from the inside out with a presidential posture, lanky country lawyer mannerisms, and a hoarsely emphatic tenor that slips slightly higher for emphasis. We see that he’s an ordinary man who has bad dreams, who enjoys telling anecdotes as a way to charm his way sideways into larger points, who occasionally fights with his wife (Sally Field) and adores his surviving sons, one older and collegiate (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the other younger (Gulliver McGrath), scampering around the White House in a child-sized army uniform. Unlike characters in lesser biopics, this president is simply a man doing his job, unaware of his historical importance.

Instead of a sweeping skim across the surface of Lincoln’s life, or even just the Civil War, the film, based in part on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, concerns itself with early 1865, the final months of the war and the attempt to pass the 13th Constitutional amendment which would eventually end slavery once and for all. What unfolds is a legislative procedural, a thrilling and involving clash of personalities and powers that reveal the messy, halting uncertainty of doing the right thing. This is a film that successfully removes the certitude of hindsight, drawing its story in a way that’s immediate and powerful with a hugely talented ensemble of actors in terrific supporting parts. We meet members of the cabinet (David Strathairn and Bruce McGill) and Lincoln’s staff (Joseph Cross), passionate abolitionists (Tommy Lee Jones, David Costabile, and Hal Holbrook), vehement opposition (Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie), undecided votes (Michael Stuhlbarg and Walton Goggins) and those lobbying to win them over (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and James Spader). When Congress is in session, the halls of power reverberate with passionate arguments, sneering counterarguments, and witty rejoinders that become a raucous clamor of insults, outrage, and powerful rhetoric.

Tony Kushner’s lively script gives all of the actors wonderfully written, fully formed roles. In fact, this script as a whole is a marvel: sharply written, dense, easily complex and learned, funny, moving, and genuinely inspirational as well. After Angels in America and Munich, he continues his pattern of turning history into deeply felt, expansive works of art. With Lincoln he’s written one of the sharpest, smartest screenplays in recent memory, eagerly intelligent and memorably erudite in a way that respects the audience’s ability to keep up. He gives the film a structure of conversations, debates, and monologues that Spielberg films closely and attentively. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, painting the frames with light, generously holds the actors steady in the frame, slowly pushing in for dramatic emphasis or pulling back to reveal import of relationships within their surroundings.

This is a film of deceptively simple craft; beautifully complex compositions and subtle camera movements add up to an epic that’s gloriously restrained, spending much time indoors amidst impeccable period detail of mud and cold, flickering flames and creaky floors. Perhaps Spielberg’s least formally showy film is in fact a tremendous fragile beauty with sharp lovely imagery that bores into the core truth of any given scene. There’s nothing inherent in the material that’s stopping Spielberg from pulling back, sweeping his camera across a CG 19th-century Washington D.C. skyline or panning across a massive troop formation. But he keeps his camera close, emphasizing the humanity of these historical figures, no matter how heroic or loathsome. It’s a film about how epochal historic change is never easy, is made by flawed people trying to balance idealism and pragmatism to the best of their abilities.

The film’s an experiential nail-biter, as involving and transporting as period films come. Though we know how it all must end, the film’s final moments hit triumphant notes of uplift and sorrow. Lincoln’s assassination is handled beautifully, all the more powerful for what it omits and elides. It’s smartly staged, sure, but it’s also hugely emotional, one of the most powerful death scenes in recent memory despite its tact and relative lack of sentiment. A film that begins by humanizing an icon returns this man to his iconic status, a position all the richer for having lived through his final months. Now, once again, he belongs to the ages.

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