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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: Lincoln (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field

A film like Lincoln inevitably ends up being caught in a Catch-22. On the one hand, a story this important and compelling must be told. On the other, it's impossible to tell it without it having that aura of the "Important Story," which makes it feel like the kind of movie you see because it's "good for you," the cinematic equivalent of brussel sprouts. Lincoln is an "Important Story" - it just is, there's no fighting that - but it is told with a minimum of period piece fussiness and it takes material that might otherwise be dry and makes it engaging and even entertaining. Lincoln is a movie that is good for you, but it is also a good movie.

Though named for the 16th President of the United States, Lincoln is not really a biopic. The man takes the mantle of protagonist, but it's not the story of his life; it is the story of the 13th Amendment. It begins shortly after Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is re-elected, as the Civil War is winding down, and he's struggling to find a way to balance his moral imperative to abolish slavery against the inevitability of the Confederacy's defeat. His desire is not a popular one, even amongst his own party, and the film is very much about the behind the scenes, back room deals that had to happen in order for the Amendment to pass, and about the moral and legal maneuvering that allowed Lincoln to guide Congress towards abolition without breaching the boundaries of his authority as President. He has already been given extraordinary authority because of the war, but he has to walk a fine line and he is intensely aware of the disparate interests he has to find a way to negotiate.

Much of the legwork is, by necessity, delegated to others: William Bilbo (James Spader), Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), and Robert Latham (John Hawkes) are charged with securing bipartisan support from the staunchly anti-Abolition Democrats, while Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and Francis Blair (Hal Holbrook) try to secure the support of the radial and conservative factions of the Republican party, respectively. The efforts are plagued by the self-interest of members of Congress, and of Blair himself, who goes south to negotiate with Confederate leaders and would prefer that the south surrender without the necessity of the 13th Amendment, and the question of whether the Amendment will have the numbers remains in play until the last possible moment. Lincoln, meanwhile, attempts to keep the proverbial right hand from knowing what the left is doing, while also dealing with domestic issues. Son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is determined to serve in the Union army and Lincoln finds himself caught between his son's desire to prove himself and the fear of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), that she will lose another son.

The balance between the political story and the domestic story is somewhat uneasy, but while I think that the subplot of Lincoln's relationship with Robert is unnecessary and not particularly well-developed, I wouldn't trade the scenes between Day-Lewis and Field for anything. Depending on your perspective, Mary Todd Lincoln was either a difficult woman, or a woman faced with many difficulties, and Field's performance is fierce and complex. Her Mary Todd Lincoln is a woman to be reckoned with, but also a woman who is intensely vulnerable and resents being shut out of a part of her husband's life. The scenes between Field and Day-Lewis tap into the shared history of their characters, suggesting the depths and complications of the relationship without the film going too far out of its way to spell things out.

While Tony Kushner's screenplay puts a lot of work into laying out the drama in a way that is easy to digest and understand without being overly didactic - which is no small feat, given the various and often complicated interests at play - and the production is rich in period detail, Lincoln is ultimately an actor's showcase. In addition to Field, whose character provides much of the emotional shading to the proceedings to balance out the political/intellectual perspective, and Holbrook, Hawkes, Nelson, Spader, and David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, who provide splashes of color across the corners of the narrative, there's also Jones delivering a commanding and very entertaining performance as a man who is Lincoln's ally on a surface level, but strongly disagrees with the way that he plays politics and with the compromises he's sometimes forced to make. Although the film is named for the President, in many ways Stevens comes out looking like the story's hero and many of the film's best scenes are those which involve Jones. I'm calling it right now: Tommy Lee Jones as this year's Best Supporting Actor.

And then, of course, there's the film's star, Daniel Day-Lewis. That he's an excellent actor really doesn't need to be said - he's proved it over and over again and has two Oscars to his credit - but just because excellence is expected of him, doesn't mean the performance should be taken for granted. He disappears into his character and delivers a quiet but very profound performance that finds the character as the calm centre of the storm, trying to keep all the pieces together while being attacked on virtually every side. Day-Lewis finds the human being beneath the mythology, turning in a performance that is unromanticized and incredibly compelling. It's a performance and, ultimately, a film that shouldn't be missed.

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