Sunday, November 11, 2012

Movie Review: "Lincoln"

Daniel Day-Lewis has given some legendary performances in his career to date, probably none as vivid as that of Daniel Plainview, his Oscar-winning turn in 2007's There Will Be Blood, which is still seared in my mind. While his performance as America's 16th president in Steven Spielberg's excellent Lincoln is somewhat less fiery, it is still enormously powerful, a role he truly gets lost in.

Lincoln focuses on the last four months of the president's life. He has just been elected to a second term, and he knows that the end of the Civil War is imminent, although he never ceases to be blown away by the toll it has taken on human lives. He urges Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would officially abolish slavery, before his inauguration. This is a shrewd yet risky political move—he knows that if the war ended before the amendment is passed, the returning Southern states will reject ratification.

To accomplish his objective, Lincoln works every angle he can. He enlists his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), to wrangle the necessary votes in the House of Representatives (which involves convincing lame-duck Democrats to cross over and vote in support of the amendment). He sends elder statesman Preston Blair (the genteel Hal Holbrook) down to Richmond to make overtures to Jefferson Davis for a settlement of peace, so Blair will keep the conservative Republicans in line. He urges powerful equality advocate Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (a marvelous Tommy Lee Jones) to control his fiery ideas that all men are equal in every way. And when Lincoln himself needs to get legislators in line, he's not above cajoling, yelling, or reminding his opponents he is "cloaked in immense power."

Meanwhile, Lincoln is dealing with his own emotional crises as well. His wife (a superlative Sally Field) is still mourning the death of their young son, Willie, and urging him to match her level of grief. His oldest son Robert (a mostly-underused Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to join the army, to prove he is just as worthy a man as every other soldier. And at times, he'd like to do nothing more than play with his youngest son, Tad.

The beauty of this movie is its capturing of the political oratory of the time. There's more than one remark that provokes a laugh because of how closely it mirrors our current political landscape. And although there's no surprise about how the 13th Amendment ultimately fares, the run-up to the final vote (and the surprising reactions) still cause emotion.

This movie is jam-packed with actors you know as well as those you'll recognize but struggle to remember their names. ("Oh, wait, that's the guy from..." is a common refrain.) At times, the virtual "who's who" nature of the cast is a little distracting, but once the movie settles in, you realize how well everyone fills their roles.

Day-Lewis occupies a remarkable physical and emotional space as Lincoln, looking every inch as authentic as the man seated within his memorial. His performance is as powerful when he's telling a story, glint in his eye, as when he is yelling at his cabinet to pass this amendment. Field brings a remarkable sense of unresolved grief, a hauntedness, to her role, although her emotions never belie the shrewdness that was Mary Todd Lincoln. Jones was born to play a craggy Civil War-era legislator; his face is etched with every struggle Thaddeus Stevens had fought. Many other actors, including Strathairn, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Lee Pace, Gloria Reuben, and David Costabile, turn in strong performances; there is not an actor who seems miscast or out of place.

If there's a fault with this movie it's that in capturing a powerful event in history, yet one with more verbal fireworks than anything else, you become somewhat conscious of its length. But it's never boring, and the performances are so riveting, that you don't feel as if you've been watching a history lesson come to life.

Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest directors in film history, and he proves himself worthy of that mantle once again with Lincoln. The marriage of exceptional acting and skillful direction results in a movie truly worth seeing, one I'll expect to see recognized quite a bit come Oscar season.

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