November 16, 2012 by Josh Weiss
Abraham Lincoln is his name, and demythologizing is the game in Steven Spielberg’s new biopic, “Lincoln” (limited release Nov. 9 with a wide release Nov. 16). Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” the movie focuses on the 16th president’s second term and the last four months of his life as he pushed for the passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the U.S. Choosing this time frame was a creative choice on the part of Spielberg as Lincoln’s entire presidency was “much too big for a film.”
The title character is portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays the role with a surprising amount of gravitas and piety.
The role will most likely secure a best-actor Oscar nomination for his performance. Viewers must throw their preconceived notions of Lincoln out the window. I expected a Lincoln with a booming voice that would make other men quiver in fear.
Rather, Day-Lewis chooses to go with what other critics are calling, “a surprisingly plainspoken, reedy, high voice that retains the courtly cadences of the South,” a voice that is most likely more historically accurate. Driven by strong performances, subtle direction, beautiful cinematography, a smart screenplay (written by Tony Kushner, it’s the second collaboration between Spielberg and the screenwriter since 2005’s “Munich”) and John Williams’ elegant score, “Lincoln” becomes a page torn right out of the history books. However, this movie’s purpose is not to deify Lincoln by placing him on a pedestal, nor does it include vampire hunting. Its purpose is to show him as he was: a man who fought for what he believed in.
Although this movie is about a war, battle scenes are nearly nonexistent, save for a powerful opening battle sequence. The need to stop the senseless violence is underscored by a recitation of the Gettysburg Address by a couple of Union troops.
Next, we transition to Day-Lewis’ Lincoln, a person who looks more ghost than man due to his graying hair, sunken cheeks and plethora of wrinkles.
Being 6 feet 2 inches in reality, Day-Lewis also conveys the tallness of the president (who was 6 feet 4 inches) as he towers over his family, friends and political colleagues.
Along with the signature chin beard and stovepipe hat (that’s where he keeps his speeches), he resembles Lincoln so much that I felt like I was staring at a colorized penny for a majority of the movie. Although he is 55 going on 56 at the time the movie is set, he resembles a man of 150, exhausted by the Civil War.
In addition, he must deal with his fragile wife, Mary (Sally Field), who is still emotionally vulnerable due to the death of one of their sons. She becomes even more distressed by their son Robert’s (Joseph Gordon Levitt) desire to fight in the war. It is January 1865, shortly after Lincoln’s re-election, and he knows that the North is going to win. In fact, three representatives from the Confederacy are heading to Washington to discuss a cease-fire.
Before doing so, however, Lincoln must see that the 13th Amendment is successfully passed through Congress. The way he sees it, if the war were to end before its passage, it would never be passed.
Arguably, my favorite character was Thaddeus Stevens [Tommy Lee Jones], the grimacing radical Republican and abolitionist, who is able to insult people with such eloquence and proper English that even Shakespeare would be proud. I was also surprised that the film was not without comedy. For instance, Lincoln secretly hires a group of men to convince some ambivalent congressmen to vote in favor of the amendment by offering them cushy jobs. This lends itself to a series of amusing cutaways. It also serves the purpose of chipping away at the seemingly untarnished status of Abraham Lincoln. This is not Lincoln the legend; it is Lincoln the mortal man who curses, conducts shady business deals, and strikes his son when he mouths off. Nonetheless, he never seems to lose his knowing, grandfatherly smile and is always able to tell a riveting story off the top of his head.
Just ask him to tell the one about the portrait of George Washington and a water closet.
The movie’s cinematography was done by Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s long-term collaborator since “Schindler’s List,” who decides to use natural light to illuminate his shots, which mirror the political arguments of whether slaves are naturally inferior to whites. The music was done by another long-term Spielberg collaborator, John Williams.
As he has done with all his scores, Williams never allows his work to overtake the director’s. It starts off quietly, perhaps not even there, ending in a big payoff as the ending credits role.
The combination of horns and strings creates a triumphant melody that reminded me of his work on “Saving Private Ryan.” There is just something about these scores that sounds inherently American.
Although this is not my favorite Spielberg war film, I can see why others praise it so highly.
I don’t know if this movie’s coinciding with the elections was intentional, but there is something to say about it.
Although the issues may be different, we still bicker among ourselves to no end. In addition, it shows us a time when presidents didn’t care about what the public thought about them. Like the real Lincoln, this movie is a slice of good ol’ fashioned American pie.