Friday, November 9, 2012

AFI Fest Review: "Lincoln"

Director: Steven Spielberg
Runtime: 150 minutes

Abraham Lincoln is, without a doubt, one of the most revered figures in American history. Considered one of the greatest men to ever sit in the Oval Office, he has, over the years, attained a near-mythic status. His appearance is known from the diminutive face of the penny to his titan-sized statue at the Lincoln Memorial that stares out over Washington D.C. Yet Lincoln the legend and Lincoln the man are bound to not align 100%. That is one of the key successes of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which has the good sense to show that even our heroes occasionally cave into the temptation to get good things done in less-than-pure ways.

Rather than set itself up as an all-encompassing biopic, Mr. Spielberg's film, from a screenplay by Tony Kushner, focuses on Lincoln's efforts to get the 13th Amendment passed in the House of Representatives before the inevitable end of the dwindling Civil War. Played with wry, steady calm by Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln is good-hearted person, but is also a shrewd politician who understands what it will take in order to get the amendment passed. 

By focusing on a particular stretch of Lincoln's presidency, rather than tackling his entire life or even political career, Kushner's screenplay takes its specific narrative and still paints it against a large backdrop. It is a political epic that crafts an entertaining look at the politics of the day, and emerges as a cohesive work rather than a clumsily overburdened tale. At only two hours, Lincoln accomplishes quite a bit, despite being mostly confined to dark rooms around the nation's capital. Some of the film's most entertaining, and surprisingly lighthearted, moments come from a trio of canvassers (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) sent to persuade 13 Democrats in the House to vote for the amendment in order to obtain a necessary majority. 

Lincoln also clashes with his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), who believes that total freedom for slaves and a quick end to the Civil War are incompatible. There's also Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a stubborn Republican who takes issue with some of the language used to persuade people to the Amendment's side. There are other characters around Lincoln as well, including his wife Mary (Sally Field), his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and a bevy of Democrats bent on taking the amendment down (led by Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie). And despite the sprawling cast of characters populating the film, the film finds an excellent balance, bringing people in and out of the story with smart efficiency. 

For Spielberg, Lincoln represents a relatively restrained work, one where the obligatory John Williams score remains absent through much of the film. This leaves more room for Kushner's screenplay to take center stage, which is hardly a bad thing. Despite his theatrical background, and the heavy amounts of dialogue present on screen, Mr. Kushner's work is largely excellent. Dialogue fills almost every scene, and yet Kushner's words are so compelling and elegant that it never feels ripped from the stage. The cast delivering the lengthy dialogue exchanges are uniformly excellent, which helps tremendously. Day-Lewis stays withdrawn for much of the film, keeping up the facade of a pleasant but determined grandfather. Yet as the stress of the War and the amendment weigh on him more and more, and his passion surfaces, the actor turns in moments that hit the same levels of power that were present in every line of his work in There Will be Blood. As much as his work in Lincoln is restrained compared to his performance in Blood, there remains a larger than life quality to the portrayal, even though it only appears in a handful of places. 

Driving the supporting cast (although Lincoln is hardly the standalone lead) are a handful of powerful turns of varying sizes. Strathairn, Jones, and Field all capitalize on their moments and deliver rich dramatic (and some surprisingly comedic) work. Of the three, Jones may fare best, if only because he has a more complete range of material to work with, his dry intonations put to excellent work in scenes big and small, serious and funny. Even the smaller roles, like those filled out by Spader, Hawkes, or Michael Stuhlbarg as an indecisive Congressman, make every moment count. Part of what makes Kushner's balancing act so impressive is that every line for each character seems to count. There are many people and personalities to accomodate, and Kushner accomplishes this by never wasting a line or scene.

Yet while Spielberg's restraint is a boon to the screenplay and the performances, it creates a ripple effect that hinders the film's technical aspects. Art direction and costume design are mostly simple (save for Mrs. Lincoln's gowns), but full of detail. Where the film runs into trouble is in Janusz Kaminski's cinematography. The interior scenes often feature muddy, brownish tones blasted with white light through blown out windows. Though it is Mr. Kushner whose origins are on the stage, it is Kaminski's work that risks turning the film into dingy play. Even the outdoor scenes have a limited, faded look that undercuts the exemplary efforts of everyone else involved. The choice seems to be deliberate, yet it feels questionable.

Yet Lincoln's accomplishments transcend whatever its technical disappointments may be. Not only does the film paint a compelling picture of Lincoln and those around him, but it captures the back-door complexity of politics. On a larger scale, this is a film that neither satirizes nor condemns the political process, even as it points out some of its faults. Spielberg and Kushner have made a film that actually explores the work of those in office, and the compromises and concessions that come with the job. Releasing the film at the end of election week couldn't be more appropriate. Lincoln is a striking look at how much our country's leadership has changed, even as so much of it has, for better or for worse, remained static.

Grade: B+

1 comment:

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