Tuesday, July 2, 2013
There are two pretty grotesquely awful moments in Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's semi-biopic of America's 16th President, and they, coincidentally or not, come at the very beginning and very end of the film. In the opening scene Lincoln is surveying a battlefield and two soldiers, mostly unbidden, recite the Gettysburg Address at him (one of the soldiers is played by Lukas Haas, which is either a very sly cameo or an indication that Lukas Haas is further down the Hollywood food chain than I would have thought.) Perhaps there's an interpretation for this scene that I'm missing, but all I read is a filmmaker who feels that the 16th President needs an introductory moment to lay out who he is and Why This All Matters. On the other end of the film there are essentially two endings, both equally execrable, first with Lincoln's assassination and then with a flashback to the 2nd inaugural address.
These scenes, all three of them, show a distinct lack of trust in the audience to place the events of the film in context on their own, something which comes up over and over (and over) with Spielberg, which is perhaps why he's always been more of a populist filmmaker than a critical darling. And it's a shame, because Lincoln is mostly a well-crafted biopic that manages to draw a vivid portrait of its subject matter without ever (except for the aforementioned scenes) feeling like a trip through the Big Events, the jukebox musical version of a biopic (think Ray, for instance). Tony Kushner's screenplay takes one specific event (the push for the passage of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery once and for all in the United States) and uses it as a prism to explore Lincoln as a whole man rather than an amber-preserved historical figure, and it is a very effective script, with a major assist going to Daniel Day-Lewis' almost preternaturally gifted performance.
I'm on record that I generally prefer a star turn performance (say, Brad Pitt in Moneyball) than a method-y, over-accented performance, but it's kind of impossible to look at what Day-Lewis is doing in Lincoln and not be awestruck. This would be a career capper if he hadn't just put one in a few years ago in There Will Be Blood, but his Lincoln is as small and sweet and lived-in as Daniel Plainview was large and apocalyptic and just downright weird. (Throughout much of Lincoln's very long pre-production period, Liam Neeson was supposed to play the role, and whatever anyone thinks of latter-day Neeson he would have been several steps down from Day-Lewis.) Tommy Lee Jones has the film's second showiest role as Thaddeus Stevens, and it's nice to see him put in the effort for a change (no one checks out of a film that he doesn't care about faster than Jones), and Sally Field is on hand to lend her own gravitas to Mary Todd, but other than Day-Lewis the best parts of the casting come from character actors given meaty parts - TV favorites David Costabile and Walton Goggins both get nice showcases as members of Congress, S. Epatha Merkerson shows up in a small but pivotal role as someone close to Stevens, and the trio of James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson get all of the film's funniest non-Lincoln moments as a trio of operatives working behind the scenes to press members of Congress on the passage of the Amendment.
And that's probably the most surprising part of the film; not how serious Lincoln is (and he is) but how funny and charming the film allows him to be. He has a tendency to speak in folksy stories and homespun wisdom, while the characters around him look on half in admiration and half in exasperation; it's obvious that this is how his friends and family are used to being delivered wisdom by him. It's a clever conceit, one that (I think) is mostly historically accurate, and it takes some of the stuffiness out of what is, at base, another one of those stories about the men of Congress passive-aggressively sniping at one another and then eventually taking a monumental, historical vote. I wish Spielberg had had the faith in the audience to bookend his film with scenes that fit the tone of the rest of the movie, but we still got a pretty damn good Lincoln movie anyway. A-