Sunday, November 25, 2012

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

Lincoln begins with a chaotic battle from the middle of the Civil War: brother against brother in hand-to hand butchery.  A scene that reminds us that war is hell, but justified when the cause is just.  Like the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg is not afraid to dig deep into the viscera of combat, making the conflict between North and South comparable to the good fight in the first half of the twentieth century that saved democracy but killed so many young men on the beaches of Normandy.

Lincoln dramatizes the final years of the Civil War in which the president is trying to pass an amendment to the Constitution that would emancipate the slaves.  At the same time, he realizes that the South could surrender and come back to the table and stop the amendment before it can become law.  The president is torn between the fact that an early peace could save thousands of lives in the battlefield, and the ideological moral stance that slavery must end in the United States, and it must end as quickly as possible. Juggling all of these themes, Steven Spielberg has fashioned a mighty film, full of bold strokes, that never gets lost in its own weighty story. Clearly, one of his best works.

Daniel Day-Lewis gives a remarkable performance in the title role.  His interpretation of our sixteenth president is a personal achievement in his career, and one of the most beautifully crafted performances in the history of cinema.  He embodies the spirit of Lincoln without channeling Henry Fonda (Young Mr. Lincoln), Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois) or, God forbid, Benjamin Walker in this year's hilariously absurd Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  He does it largely by inventing a new voice for himself: a reedy homespun tenor that from now on we will always associate as the voice of Abraham Lincoln.  Also helping him give a great performance are an army of makeup artists (rarely does contemporary makeup succeed in aging an actor correctly.  This time they nailed it!), the great costumes of Joanna Johnston, and the memorable cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, who with his images manages to transport us back a century and a half. (I can only imagine what the film would have been like if it were shot in Black & White: Matthew Brady photographs and daguerreotypes come to life!)

The rest of the impressive cast includes Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, who plays the president's wife as if she had a thorn buried deep inside her heart.  David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, memorable as the puppet master of backroom politics, and Tommy Lee Jones absolutely brilliant as Senator Thaddeus Stevens: an old fashioned abolitionist Washington politico with a secret that has not managed to leak.

Tony Kushner deserves special praise.  The Pulitzer prize winning author of Angels in America has written a literate, intelligent screenplay that resonates with our current political crises, and reminds us that any successful democratic political system is filled with messy compromise.  It's "sausage-making," in the words of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

In mid November President Barack Obama hosted a screening of the film at the White House with the cast and crew of the film present.  It might not be a bad idea to follow the Executive Mansion showing with a secondary one in the halls of Congress.  It might just remind or teach a few of our present lawmakers and representatives what politics are really all about.

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