(directed by Steven Spielberg, 2012)
****+ (out of 5)
. Yet again: predictably reliable Steven Spielberg gives the movie-going public a handsome holiday present, delivering what he does best: big, emotionally stirring, epic cinema with scope balanced by intimacy.
. The biggest theatre in my town was more full than empty with an obviously older crowd reflecting the subject of the film. The expectant crowd was primed for meat, not craving sugar and fat- and Mr. Spielberg fed us well. (No wonder the servings were rich, considering the source material: Delores Kearns Goodwin’s massive bestselling examination of the Lincoln presidency A TEAM OF RIVALS, as adapted by celebrated playwright Tony Kushner.) As if to let us know he didn’t plan to pull his punches, this seasoned, self-assured filmmaker begins with a gruesome hand-to-hand battle scene involving, for ultimate contrast I imagine, a black regiment from the North in mortal combat with all-white Confederate forces. They writhe on a soggy battlefield, punching and kicking and choking one another with their bare hands, impaling their enemies with their bayonets moments before they themselves are stabbed from behind. In the foreground a man struggles desperately for his life, as his face is slowly ground under the blood-spattered mud. We see him breathe what was possibly his last breath. So much for reminding us what’s at stake here.
. From there the film focuses on the events that brought about the end of the Civil War: taking what had been a war powers act, (freeing the slaves to draft them as soldiers) into codified federal law, via a 13th amendment to the constitution- the final nail in the coffin of legal slavery in America. There are so many players, we barely gat to know any of them- mostly men with long hair, wigs and big bushy beards, but it isn’t their story. It’s both a larger and smaller canvas Spielberg is painting on here: the big sweep of collective history and the later life of Abraham Lincoln the man. The good news: he succeeds on both levels, in scenes of potent state oratory alternated with intimate family moments that range from the peaceful (a boy lies in his fathers lap, rocking in a rocking chair) to the passionate (Abraham and Mary having an intense marital row about the death of their son years before) with equal ease. Daniel Day-Lewis, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, is perfectly cast, and rises to the occasion to practically inhabit the mythic spirit we imagine the great man to have had. He is perfect, wonderful, the candidate to beat for the Best Actor Oscar. [Though my choice remains Joaquin Phoenix for his mold-breaking performance in THE MASTER.] It was no big surprise when the audience applauded his name in the closing credits. Day-Lewis was amazing. What was a surprise is that they clapped three more times! Never in my cinema-going days have I heard the audience applaud the credits FOUR times! They gave an enthusiastic endorsement to Sally Field’s compelling portrait of the complicated Mary Todd Lincoln, tormented by migraine headaches, debilitating grief and mental illness. [Will she be nominated again, after all these long years? Yes! I think so. Good for her! I hope they like her- really, really like her.] The next even louder spontaneous eruption came for Tommy Lee Jones as a fierce, but pragmatic Abolitionist. [Was he wonderful? Duh! When isn’t he? Will he be remembered for a Supporting Actor nod? Bet on it.] Then when the maestro’s name hit the screen, people clapped and someone called out “Way to go Steve!” Though not particularly moved by this John Williams score, [the man has a hard track record to live up to!], I was very impressed how much Spielberg managed to suppress his natural tendency towards mawkish sentimentality, a trait that could have seriously undermined this film.
. Will LINCOLN be a big hit? Don’t think so, despite the early, probably more wonkish audience who were drawn to the earliest showings by their love for history. It’s a good deal of talk with little action. Even brilliantly written dialogue is just… dialogue, if you’d rather be watching the new Bond flick. Not much of a date movie! And the ending seemed to linger too long. It must have been a dilemma: “How far do we take it? If the story is about the struggle to end the war and pass the 13th amendment, do we take the timeline all the way to his death- and if we do, do we offer yet another re-creation of the assassination? Then how do we conclude? Hell of a downbeat ending for what is ultimately an uplifting film?”
. Is it a Best Picture candidate? You bet. Will it win? Maybe. Hollywood likes this kind of old-school big-screen filmmaking. But there are still big films to come before December 31st. We’ll just have to wait and see the final list. Should you put this film on your list?
. In a word: youbetcha!
© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.