Lincoln

Time passed, as happens

LincolnI’ve never cared much for political biopics, glorification of History’s Great White Guys, or the films of Steven Spielberg, but perhaps that’s why Lincoln did something for me – its subversion of all three forms.  Yes, it’s a film specifically designed to win Academy Awards, but the presence of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln dilutes the Hollywood Design to the point that the film becomes less like a film and more like sitting in various rooms with the President during the last few months of his presidency.

The film’s title may be a bit of a misnomer, but its chief intention (Oscars for Spielberg) requires it to be the “definitive” Lincoln film, especially since two other Lincoln-themed movies (Redford’s The Conspirator and the campy Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) have been released in the past two years.  You may expect a story so definitively named to cover the title character’s entire life, or at least his up-and-coming years when he was wrestling for the presidency, but no; here, we see Lincoln in his final months of life, struggling to pass the 13th Amendment (the abolition of slavery) whilst being driven to the edge by his home life.  Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) supports her husband’s politics, despite their marital problems, which include the death of their middle son and the fact that Lincoln once threatened to have her put in the “madhouse.”  Additionally, Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is determined to join the army, which Mary staunchly opposes and which Lincoln, regardless of his status as Commander-in-Chief, cannot do a damn thing about.

The timeworn trials of the Lincoln family take a backseat to the political action and sometimes feel wedged between the complex narrative involving the Amendment.  It is worth noting, however, that even though we know slavery will be abolished, Lee will surrender to Grant (Jared Harris, who hardly needs makeup to look like the general), and the Amendment will pass, the story still feels urgent and exciting.  Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is depicted as the Louisiana farmboy he was, not the baritone man’s man archetype we sometimes like to glorify him as.  He actually had a high-pitched voice (the only way he’d be heard in the back row of the giant crowds to which he gave speeches).  He was sympathetic, self-deprecating, and bizarre.  He loved to tell stories and tie old parables into what was happening in the White House.  Day-Lewis, famous method actor, completely becomes Lincoln in this picture, and even gets his obligatory Day-Lewis-Closeup-Yelling scene, but even then, you’ll only see the president here, not an actor.  Lincoln’s famous bowler hat is of course included, but is never played for laughs or even for much attention; it may as well be an extension of the man himself.  Long shots provide Day-Lewis and the rest of the cast with incredible opportunities to paint carefully-crafted pictures of their historical characters.

The film’s primary standout feature, aside from Day-Lewis’s performance, is the sight of the House of Representatives floor, whereupon abolitionist and Radical Republican Congressional Leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) pushes for the passing of the Amendment while trying not to appear as a race-equality extremist.  He butts heads with slimeball Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), in fiery exchanges that I can only hope have been transcribed verbatim.  The sheer animalistic nature of the countless dozens of white men on the floor looks like something out of a parody, but we sometimes forget that this is the way it once was.  The scenes of these congressmen shouting, chanting, climbing over each other, and clawing faces, forms a perfect parallel with the opening scene of the movie – a brief glimpse at a battle from the Civil War, in which hundreds of soldiers melee to the death in a pit of mud – showcasing how absurd war really is.  Lincoln knows it, as does Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), who treats Lincoln like a misbehaving child when the latter skirts histrionics or does something behind Seward’s back (such as bringing Confederate representatives to the North in order to talk peace, essentially holding the end of the war hostage until the Amendment is passed).

Lincoln features possibly the largest cast of white guys ever assembled.  So many famous and accomplished actors appear, in fact, that it becomes almost a joke after awhile, as they continue to appear one by one.  Noted comedian James Spader appears as William Bilbo, a lobbyist who has some amusing scenes as he tries to convince Democrats to vote for the 13th Amendment; Michael Stuhlbarg, known for starring in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire as notorious gambler Arnold Rothstein, plays George Yeaman, Kentucky’s reprsentative, and puts on an interesting southern twang; David Costabile of Flight of the Conchords plays James Ashley, and very convincingly; Tim Blake Nelson has the part of Richard Schell, who leads Lincoln’s, shall we say, “street team” along with Bilbo; Walton Goggins, who appeared in Tarantino’s Django Unchained as a character with a much different view on slavery, appears as Wells Hutchins, one of the 16 democrats to break with their party in favor of the Amendment; Hal Holbrook, who played Lincoln in 1976, plays Francis Preston Blair, the politician who arranges a peace talk with the Confederacy; and refreshingly, Gloria Reuben appears as Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave and Mary Todd’s confidante, who receives plenty of screen time and a very important scene with the president near the end.

If the film has one pitfall, it’s where Spielberg chooses to end it.  A lovely scene on the night of Lincoln’s death features the president leaving his cabinet behind in order to hurriedly meet with Mary for the opera.  “I guess it’s time to go,” he says, “though I would rather stay” – purportedly Lincoln’s real-life final words to his cabinet that evening; whether or not he prophesied his own fate is up to you.  He then hands his gloves, which he refuses to wear, to his black butler, a free man, who watches Lincoln traverse the hallway until he becomes a silhouette of that tall, bearded, bowler-hatted American icon we all know.  In shadow, he then descends the stairs, leaving this life behind, the gloves perhaps a metaphor for Lincoln passing the baton to the people he has helped free.  This is where the film should end.  Instead, there is maybe another two minutes of reel, in which Lincoln’s shooting is announced to opera-goers, a doctor pronounces him dead as his family grieves, and then a flashback of his second inaugural address is shown before the credits roll.  Is this pure indulgence, a stab at absolute completion, or does Spielberg believe that modern viewers don’t know what happened to Lincoln that night?

Lincoln reminds me of something my dad said the other day, regarding HBO’s John Adams miniseries: “I learned so much more watching that than I did in school.”  Do biopics like these take liberties with history and dramatize people and events?  Yes, of course.  Historical fiction exists to observe and interpret history, not to provide a substitute for facts.  Is there something real, though, that can be learned from a film like Lincoln, whether about the man or the time period?  Maybe.  Regardless, let’s hope we can continue to remember without relying upon the entertainment industry, or else our grandchildren are in trouble.

Lincoln (2012); written by Tony Kushner; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, and Tommy Lee Jones.

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