Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lincoln (2012) ✭✭✭✭1/2

Nominated for twelve Oscars, Lincoln has already won a slew of the preliminary awards, the bulk going to Daniel Day-Lewis for his iconic portrayal of the wily president. He deserves every one of them, for Day-Lewis’ manifestation is a performance for the ages. What George C. Scott did for Patton and Marlon Brando did for The Godfather, Day-Lewis does for Lincoln, and that may be understating his achievement. This Lincoln is not the heroic figure of historical sainthood, but a shy, introverted man who bore the crushing weight of his crumbling nation the same way he outmaneuvered his formidable political opposition, by forging wit, decency and intelligence into an irresistible force.

Day-Lewis presents Lincoln’s winning strategy with a clarity usually lost to the history books; he simply outlasted the bastards. In Lincoln’s cabinet meetings, no situation was too grave or too urgent to be interrupted by one of the President’s funny stories of rustic lawyering in the wilds of Illinois. While the war hinges on the assault at the port of Wilmington, Day-Lewis enthralls his brain trust with a knee slapper about Ethan Allen’s diplomatic trip to England. But these tales are not mere mood lighteners, for Lincoln understood that in a free country things must run their course; that lasting change is only possible once the status quo is exhausted and proven irrefutably wrong. Lincoln is often accused of delaying and as the film makes clear, wearing out his enemies was Lincoln’s favorite tactic. Day-Lewis‘ performance is an embodiment of this strategy. When he is on-screen, time magically seems to stop, as viewers eagerly await his next crafty gesture or creaky line of dialogue. Amazingly, he never disappoints.

The scenes without Day-Lewis have a tough road living up to that standard, and at times Lincoln seems like just another over produced depiction of history. Spanning approximately one month, the film centers on the political gymnastics involved in getting the slavery abolishing thirteenth amendment through the House of Representatives; a body as dysfunctional and unruly 150 years ago as it is today. These scenes feature a who’s who of middle aged character actors, led by Tommy Lee Jones as the liberal Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, who we eventually learn has a very personal stake in this fight. Lee Pace is quite good as Fernando Wood, a foppish loud mouth defender of white privilege and a forerunner of Tucker Carlson. David Strathairn, as Secretary of State William Seward and Lincoln’s philosophical foil, does wonders with the thankless role of a scolding straight man. Of course, none of these talents are lightweights, having at times carried their own movies, but such is Day-Lewis‘ brilliance that here they seem like a group of Triple A ballplayers to his Buster Posey.

Lincoln is a Steven Spielberg film, which means it manages to be impressive and hokey at the same time. A subplot involving James Spader and Jon Hawkes as dodgy political operatives charged with bribing enough votes to pass the amendment is overly broad and ultimately misfires, tarnishing the film as a whole. Sally Field’s turn as Mary Todd Lincoln, a woman of baffling complexity, additionally falls flat as the director clearly has no idea what to do with her. However, Spielberg’s depiction of 1860s DeeCee has some interesting flavors. Filmed largely in old town Petersburg, VA -- a landmark neighborhood of charmless red brick boxes -- this Washington is not abuzz with news media and secured to the teeth, but rather a sleepy, muddy burg where any hayseed could just walk into the White House and chew the fat with ol' Abe. The cavernous offices of the federal gummit are dark, smokey affairs with the embattled President’s loneliness creeping from the shadows.

And it may well be Day-Lewis’ capture of Lincoln’s loneliness that makes this portrayal truly definitive. Underneath the warm handshakes and folksy anecdotes was a divided soul tortured by a divided nation. Lincoln’s attempt to balance what was right with what was possible forced his administration to follow a circuitous and bloody path while Americans butchered each other in the name of ideology. It’s a fitting coincidence that as a film Lincoln flounders a bit in scenes without Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s the glue that holds the movie together. Just as Abraham Lincoln, with cunning steadiness, held the nation together.


Retro Hound said...

Good review! Haven't caught this one yet, but I'm sure we will.
"Lincoln is a Steven Spielberg film, which means it manages to be impressive and hokey at the same time." SOOO true with only a few exceptions.

Bunched Undies said...

I think you'll like it. Daniel Day-Lewis really brings him to life. And yes Spielberg's been cheezy ever since the end of Schindler's List...when he seemed to give up the idea that his audience could figure anything out on their own.

Movies Eat the Soul said...

Just never found time over the holidays. I will see it if only for Lewis. I don't trust Kushner as far as I could throw him.

Bunched Undies said...

Thanks for the comment METS, Yes Day-Lewis is the compelling element here...the rest of the movie is filler.

Bob of Holland said...

Excellent review. I completely agree with what you write about Daniel Day Lewis. There is a wonderful kind of humor in his portrayal. I also loved the camera work and lighting, which really makes you feel what the period must have been like. The last screen shot in your review illustrates what I mean.

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