Friday, January 4, 2013
Movie Review: LINCOLN (Touchstone/DreamWorks/20th Century Fox, 2012)
Do we really need a talky, 2 1/2 hour drama about Abraham Lincoln in this day and age? Yes, apparently we do, and quite desperately, it would seem. Between some moviegoers reportedly being shocked -- shocked! -- at the (unseen) assassination that concludes Steven Spielberg's film and Internet Movie Database posters asking such questions as, "Why didn't they show Oswald?" and "Where's the scene in which Lincoln cut down the cherry tree?", I can't quarrel with any attempt to reacquaint some of the more benighted members of our society with the words and deeds of the Great Emancipator. The shame is that many of the very folks who would legitimately benefit from a viewing of this slow-paced, but frequently moving, film would probably have opted for the axe-swinging, ass-kicking version of Lincoln that appeared in another film released earlier in 2012.
It is rather misleading to say that Lincoln is "based on" Doris Kearns Goodwin's bestseller TEAM OF RIVALS. Actually, Tony Kushner's screenplay covers only a small portion of Lincoln's Presidency, namely, the first few months of 1865. The focus here is on the reelected Lincoln's simultaneous efforts to bring the Civil War to a conclusion and ram the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery through a divided House of Representatives. While the film has its hagiographical aspects, the most striking thing about it is the matter-of-fact way in which it depicts the horse-trading, vote-buying, and occasional dishonesty in which Lincoln and his subordinates had to engage in order to ensure passage of the Amendment. I'm glad that Spielberg refused to go the "Saint Abraham" route and instead depicted Lincoln as a practical politician who was not above using patronage and similar tactics to achieve a grander goal.
The acting in Lincoln can hardly be faulted. Daniel Day-Lewis has received all sorts of praise for his portrayal of Lincoln, and rightfully so, but David Straithairn as Secretary of State William Seward and Tommy Lee Jones as misanthropic Radical Republican firebrand Thaddeus Stevens are equally fine. James Spader provides a welcome touch of comic relief as one of the vaguely shady politicoes employed by Seward and, later, Lincoln to arm-twist recalcitrant Democrats into supporting the Amendment. Sally Field is vaguely irritating as the impossible Mary Lincoln, but I suppose that that was the whole point.
Lincoln isn't exactly a lighthearted night at the movies, but it tells a compelling story that all Americans need to hear.