Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Alternate Title:  The Last, Full Measure

One sentence synopsis:  Abraham Lincoln struggles to get the 13th Amendment passed through congress before the end of the war makes it impossible.

Things Havoc liked:  Daniel Day Lewis is one of my least-favorite great actors. Method to a fault, he throws himself into his films like a madman, with the predictable result that his movies are often wholly mad. Gangs of New York, in which he played a raving maniac, was a muddled, chaotic mess of a film that lost itself in artifice and stylization. There will be Blood, in which he also played a raving maniac, was a languid, boring piece of crap, livened only by a hunched-over Day-Lewis screaming incoherently about milkshakes. Though there are movies of his I've liked, they've either been due to factors other than him (Last of the Mohicans) or films where his tendency to devolve into histrionics served the film well (The Crucible). Though on some objective scale he is reckoned a great actor, I must admit that I questioned his casting as Abraham Lincoln, a man whose biography, I felt, was not conducive to the typical soul-baring rage-against-the-heavens that Day-Lewis tends to inflict on his audiences.

Well apparently, I wasn't the only one who felt that way.

Lincoln, a biopic based loosely on the pioneering biography "Team of Rivals", is one of the greatest biographies ever committed to film, and the majority of the credit is due to Daniel Day-Lewis. Whether by consultation with the production team, his own obsessive method preparations, or both, Lewis presents us with a Lincoln unlike any we've seen before, and yet better, by far, than all of the others. The movie takes place (rather surprisingly to me) in the last few months of Lincoln's presidency, and we see him as a bent, exhausted man, wearied by four years of seemingly ceaseless slaughter, yet still empowered with reserves of will sufficient to take on yet another bitter battle because of an opportunity he alone perceives as existing. His voice is high and almost reedy, infused with the mid-western twang that so many Lincoln actors forget he must have possessed, and his manner is folksy and informal, and his penchant for tall tales and Aesopian parables is such that he drives members of his cabinet out of the room with the mere mention of the phrase "I am reminded of the story...". More shocking to me, there is here no trace of the violent, brooding madness that Day-Lewis previously seemed to mistake as 'pathos' in so many of his previous characters. Capable though he is of deep feeling, he only occasionally lets it break out, and then quickly thrusts it back inside, understanding instead the need to be the man that others expect him to be. Only once, in the entire film, does Day-Lewis explode into the sort of tirade that his previous films were so studded with, and in that case he is easily upstaged by a genuine lunatic.

Speaking of which, Lincoln carries with it a cast of supporting actors to die for. Sally Field, who I like more and more as she gets older, plays the infamous Mary Todd Lincoln, who in her own words in this film, is "remembered only for being crazy and ruining [Lincoln's] life." Field plays Mary Todd as a woman who is borderline crazy, yes, but who has been crazy for a long time, and who has, along with her husband, come to terms with her own conditions to a point. She and Lincoln fight, even rage at one another in thunderous bombast, but she retains enough self-awareness to cut dead her husband's political adversaries with weaponized remarks, to play the part of the first lady when necessary, and to indulge in the political intrigues of the day. Other roles include that always dependable David Straitharn as Secretary of State William Seward, a polished statesman still rankling somewhat beneath Lincoln's backwoods aphorisms and seemingly impossible requests, but who quite clearly has come to be in awe of the President whose greatness so clearly eclipses everyone's including his own. Tommy Lee Jones, who recently has taken to playing himself in every film, here plays Thaddeus Stevens, a firebrand radical abolitionist, who must set aside his own distrust of Lincoln's moderation to force a bill outlawing slavery forever through a hostile congress. Jones' performance isn't a terribly grand departure from his usual fare, but he benefits by getting fed some of the best lines, standing up in the House of Representatives and denouncing his opponents with savage, biting wit. If nothing else, this film provides a counterpoint to anyone who claims that bitter partisanship is somehow a new development.

Steven Spielberg is a director whose name was once a byword for quality, but whose tendencies towards schmaltz and sappiness have overwhelmed him of late (AI, War of the Worlds, War Horse). But Lincoln serves as a reminder of just how effective Spielberg can be when he chooses. With one brief exception early in the film, the movie is shot entirely without battle sequences or fights of any kind, concentrating instead on the details, sometimes the exacting details, of congressional procedure and political dealmaking. We watch as Lincoln's team of fixers (led by an unrecognizable James Spader) seeks to bribe, cajole, and threaten various congressmen into voting for the bill, go through lengthy debates and speeches that deal with arcane rules of governmental protocol and hear over and again Lincoln standing firm against what appears to be his entire cabinet as they try and convince him that the Thirteenth Amendment cannot (or should not) be passed). And yet somehow, not only is this material not boring, it is positively riveting, shot as it is in such a manner as to allow these towering figures of history to show the import of the tremendous events they are participating in. Far too much historical material regarding the Civil War and slavery is presented from a modern perspective, investing the "good" characters with qualities anachronistic to the times so as to force our identification with the side of right. Yet the movie here, without disfiguring the context of its history, portrays all of the players in 1865 as being well aware of what history they were making, and the seriousness and passion with which the movie and the characters treat the subject at hand is infectious, turning what could have been a Ken Burns documentary into a vision of living history, timeless and timely all at once.

Things Havoc disliked:  When the film is dealing with issues of weight and gravitas, it is faultless, but there are occasions when it deals with other matters, to its own disservice. The entire sub-plot with Robert Lincoln, who wishes to enlist in the army over the objections of his mother and father is not badly handled, but comes across as a very pedestrian subject by comparison to everything else being done. Moreover, as Robert is played by the increasingly ubiquitous Joseph Gordon-Levitt, these sequences served only to remind me of the fact that I'm not a great fan of his, despite his excellent turns in The Dark Knight Rises or Inception. Gordeon-Levitt doesn't do a bad job, but the material he gets to play with is far less compelling than everything else, and he does not have the services of half a dozen superb, veteran actors to call upon in support of his major scenes.

The movie also does go a bit overboard near the end, when it becomes time to hold the climactic vote to decide whether the 13th amendment will pass or not. I appreciate that the issue was closely fought for, and that it serves here as the climax of the film itself, but the slow, lengthy recitation of what must be every single congressman in the House claiming Aye or Nay run for so long that one suspects the intention was to ward off any possible criticism from historians, as opposed to generating riveting film. Yes, we've invested a great deal of time in the question of whether this congressman or that one will vote for the amendment, but the film spends at least ten minutes going through the votes of other congressmen we've never met and never heard of up until this point, which given that we already know that A: the amendment passed, and B: the amendment's passage came down to a handful of votes, the bearers of whom we've spent two hours exploring, the fixation on procedure seems odd.

Final thoughts:   Lincoln is a towering achievement, a movie that presents us with the story of a great man in tempestuous times and shows us how he rose above them to command the reverent adulation with which his memory is clothed today. It takes a tiny portion of Abraham Lincoln's overall story, and presents it to us with such skill that we are simply left wanting to see more. I know that I seem to have fallen into a habit of saying things like this, but it is one of the best films I've seen in quite a while.

There are some biopics that colonize the popular memory of a historical figure. George C. Scott will forever be synonymous with George Patton and Jamie Foxx with Ray Charles. If there is any justice in the world, when people think of Abraham Lincoln in the future, they will think of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Final Score:  8.5/10

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