Saturday, January 05, 2013
Spielberg and Day-Lewis' Masterful "Lincoln"
50 years from now, a generation of Americans will base their own mental pictures of Lincoln on Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln." This is not just the performance of the year - Day-Lewis' rendering of the beloved 16th President is a titanic achievement, and over time Day-Lewis as Lincoln will come to stand with actor/character portrayals like Scott/Patton and Brando/Corleone as the very best that cinema has to offer. I didn't think it was possible for Day-Lewis to top his performance in "There Will Be Blood," but he does it here.
But a great performance alone does not a great movie make. Fortunately, that is not an issue here, as the screenplay, the direction, and the supporting performances are all up to the task. As I'm sure most have heard by now, "Lincoln" is set in the final months of his presidency, and focuses on his efforts to secure passage of the 13th Amendment. It is a richly detailed and compelling story, and for someone who has spent the better of part of his life involved in or directly working in politics and government, it is also a feast for the mind. For current pundits and others who decry the current lack of civility in modern-day politics, it reminds us that the American brand of politics has almost always been a coarse instrument, one shaded with gray. No doubt, there are political theorists past, present and future who will take exception to Lincoln's "ends justify the means" approach to getting what he wants. For the rest of us, it is a useful reminder that there are always exceptions which prove the rule.
Aside from brief scenes of battle and its terrible aftermath, Steven Spielberg does not try to overwhelm the story with spectacle. His restrained, sure-handed direction may, in time, come to be considered his best. Tony Kushner's screenplay does not try to paint the characters as saints or sinners - he just shows us these characters as what they were, and lets the viewer decide on his/her own how they feel about them.
"Lincoln" is also filled with great performances from actors who no doubt felt challenged to prove themselves worthy to share screen time with one of the masters of the craft. The list is long - Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson as the era's version of lobbyists (well before the advent of bodies like the Fair Political Practices Commission), Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, reminding us that as we walk through D.C. we are literally walking through the country's history, and David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, whose relationship with Lincoln is strong enough that he can stand up to the great man when he feels he's gone or been led astray. And Sally Field, who portrays Mary Todd Lincoln sympathetically (and even heroically, as she has no qualms in standing up to Thaddeus Stevens when the occasion demands it), but also in a way that makes it clear that the crises Lincoln was struggling with were personal as well as national.
It's all wonderful, really. I have nothing negative to say about the movie, and urge everyone to see it.