Historical history lesson
Those for whom a night out at the movies dare not involve a history lesson, Steven Spielberg’s new film “Lincoln” (opening today) may not convince them otherwise.
But it might.
The legendary director, eschewing his populist reputation, creates a dramatic and riveting portrait of this country’s 16th president that is neither epic nor sweepingly biographical in the traditional sense. Encompassing a short period of time, arguably the most crucial three months in American history, Spielberg, aided by a dynamic screenplay from Pulitizer Prize winner Tony Kushner and the highly regarded source material by author Doris Kearns Goodwin, casts his director’s lens squarely on Lincoln. And the film and the man come to life by way of a towering portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis.
It is January 1865 and Lincoln has already won re-election, announced the Emancipation Proclamation (which freed the slaves of the southern states), and is confidant the Union is about to win the Civil War. But it will be a Pyrrhic victory if slavery isn’t abolished for good, legally, and the graying president pushes for passage of the 13th Amendment. To do so he must cajole, convince, persuade even bribe both his Republican detractors and his Democratic enemies.
The film captures the fiery legislative process on the House floor using a huge, sparkling ensemble that includes Tommy Lee Jones, (Thaddeus Stevens) David Strathairn (William Seward) with strong and often hilarious support from Lincoln’s personal aides, portrayed by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson.
Capturing the depression-fueled histrionics of Lincoln’s wife Mary is Sally Field, whose reactions seem melodramatic only to the neophyte—she blamed Lincoln for the death of their son Willie, and badgers Abe to prevent their oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from enlisting. Battle scenes from the grisly war are kept to a discretionary but effective minimum, while the film’s most ghastly and visceral scene involves a blood-drenched wheelbarrow.
While historians may quibble with what’s left out (Lincoln read the bible daily and the film never even implies this seemingly important character trait), Spielberg is to be commended for crafting an immersive, detailed, unflinching portrait of a president whose common touch belied a fervent, even ruthless will to get the job done as he saw fit.
But perhaps Spielberg’s master stroke was convincing two-time Oscar winner Day-Lewis to put on the stovepipe hat and boots. Gangly, stooping with the trademark sunken cheeks and familiar beard (grown by “ugly” Abe to make him look less old), and that Southern cadence which was prone to patience-testing storytelling – Day-Lewis is virtually invisible in his character. He depicts everything we know about Lincoln yet makes it uniquely his own.
A third Oscar seems inevitable for the Irish actor – not by making the character larger than life (as in previous roles), but by fleshing out the intimate details that make the character even more real than we imagined. If “Lincoln,” an exquisite, immersive, fully entertaining, dramatized account of real events can’t get you excited about history, even on the big screen, nothing will.
Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, images of carnage and brief strong language.