Film Reviews

Lincoln Steven Spielberg

Rating - 9/10


Oh, there is so much that could have gone wrong with this picture.  You've got the quitessential American director taking on the quintessential American subject, a combination so fraught with the perils of pretension and corniness.  You've got the grandest actor in movies today taking on the most iconic figure in American history.   You have one of today's leading playwrights, putting words in the mouth of our most literate of Presidents.   Then there's the myriad of character actors all with the potential of chewing up scenery in their period costumes. It really should have been a disaster, rather than a glorious triumph, which is what it turned out to be.  
The key word is restraint.  This may seem like an odd statement as you sit through nearly three hours of epic drama surrounding the passing of the 13th amendment, outlawing slavery in the United States.  But apart from a stagey introduction in which soldiers fresh off the battlefield quote the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln himself, as if lined up for a student assembly presentation for President's Day, the film derives its devastating power from quiet moments and the lack of preachy speechifying.  Let's first deal with the issue of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln.  Everything you've heard about this incredible performance is true.  Day-Lewis somehow becomes the Lincoln we all imagine yet still manages to bring a real human being to life.  We come to understand that his quirky personality, he can't resist telling stories at what everyone else considers the worst time, and his frail, high pitched voice, which made those around him stop what they were doing so he could be heard, and his ability to see to the heart of the matter when others were busy debating tactics, combined to make him a preternaturaly magnetic figure.  Day-Lewis becomes the man, the actual person, you would follow Braveheart-style into the breach.  With all his flaws on full display, he manages to personify the most central idea of the American experiment - that human beings, not gods, are responsible for seeing that justice is done.  
Much credit must be given to screenwriter Tony Kushner, who gives Lincoln a quiet elequence that entrances those around him and leaves them, and us, in stunned awe.  There's a scene, late at night, where Lincoln is dictating a message to be sent to General Grant to two young men operating the equipment.  He first wonders aloud "if we are fitted to the times we are born into", and when he learns one of the young men is an enginner, he muses on Euclid's axiom stating that 'things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other".  It's a quiet moment, but the men are left realizing that while the President is simply a man carrying a heavy burden, he's also something other-worldy, as most charasmatic figures appear to us.  When Lincoln decides to finally return to bed, one of the men can think of nothing to do besides stand as he walks out of the room.  It's a perfect touch, not overtly sentimental but appropriate to the moment.  The wonderful words are Kushner's, but the man standing out of loyalty and respect is not in the screenplay, and can be credited to Spielberg, who has brought all his powers to bear on the subject.
We are all well aware of Steven Spielberg's excesses, as well as his strengths.  An unfortunate example of the former was the lovemaking scene at the end of Munich (another Kushner collaboration) that was juxtaposed against the murder of Israeli hostages.  It was a lapse of judgment that marred an otherwise excellent and thoughtful action film.   Spielberg is capable of making nearly perfect films  (Jaws, ET) but often he's guilty of driving his point home a little too hard.  We all remember the happy ending he tacked onto A.I.  What's so surprising about Lincoln is that he somehow manages to hold himself back.  He lets the story play out, the actors, including wonderful comic relief from James Spader and Tommy Lee jones, do their thing, and he captures it all with typical mastery.  He scores the biggest emotional points in unlikely moments, as when Lincoln sits at the bedside of his aides deciding whether or not to pardon a 16 year old soldier who avoided fighting.  If you hung every 16 year old boy for cruelty, he laments, 'there's be no 16 year old boys left."  He then pauses for a long beat, obviously thinking of his own dead son, and there's not a dry eye in the house.   Spielberg realizes, wisely, that the material is inherently dramatic and the stakes are as high as they can be, so the payoffs will come without him adding any extra Spielberg juice.  He even quietly delights in the irony that in this Hollywood film, the Republicans are the good guys!
It took me weeks to get into the screening I saw, the movie selling out regularly in my neck of the woods, and it shows how starved many of us are for adult entertainment.  Spielberg has made a movie worthy of his subject, with skill and restraint, wonderful writing and extraordinary acting.  Leaving the theater, I was torn between my immediate appreciation of his accomplishment and the nagging reminder of what a piece of shit a movie like Tiny Furniture is - which has none of the above.  Yes, this review was simply another oppurtunity for me to bash Lena Dunham.  So what?