Deja vu all over again: Lincoln

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Whether or not Steven Spielberg intended his latest film Lincoln to serve as a finely crafted allegory for our contentiously political times, it very much is one. The movie succeeds on multiple levels, not only allegorical but also as instructively engaging historical psychodrama and crackerjack cinematic entertainment.

Daniel Day-Lewis as the titular American president is warm yet flinty and infinitely watchable in yet another amazingly chameleonic performance in his long and storied career. He manages to evade the trap of most historical biopics – he is neither overly reverential nor artistically self-indulgent. And he is most assuredly not some wax figure in Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.”

Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln is a fully realized, at times lovable, always affecting flesh-and-blood creation. I challenge anyone to read about Lincoln after watching this movie and NOT hear Day-Lewis’ voice in your head or visualize the mischievous, twinkly fire in his eyes.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Civil War (no shock there) and focuses on the political machinations required to have the 13th Amendment pass the House of Representatives, where it has been stuck for the better part of a year. Lincoln realizes that, if the Civil War ends before the Amendment’s passage, he might not ever amend the Constitution to prevent slavery forevermore.

Needless to say, Beltway (was it called the “Beltway” in those days?) backstabbing and hijinks ensue, and anyone who has lived in America in the past twelve years will reflect  “the more things change…the more they stay the same.” Neither Spielberg nor screenwriter Tony Kushner proselytize (though there is speechifyin’-a-plenty) but the ugliness of watching entitled white dudes debating the finer points of social issues for which they have no real skin in the game is like deja vu all over again.

The supporting cast is a who’s who of America’s finest players, from always delightful David Strathairn to a gonzo-fun James Spader who seems to be channeling Robert Downey, Jr., at his most drug-addled. Lee Pace of ABC’s short-lived Pushing Daisies is fun as a posturing, preening Congressman opposed to the Amendment, and Jackie Earle Haley continues his run of great late-career performances as the peace-seeking Confederate Veep, literally left cooling his heals on a riverboat as Lincoln pushes the Amendment through.

Sally Field as Mary Todd-Lincoln is adequate, and I’m not sure if her part was a bit underwritten or if I have just seen her return to the same actorly well a few too many times. Kushner seems to be channeling a postmodern perspective on the Lincolns’ marriage/family through every bit of Field’s dialogue, and she does yeoman’s work making it sound natural but at times it still seems stilted.

The film also suffers from about four endings too many. We know what happens to Lincoln in the weeks and months following the Amendment’s passage, and, trying to cram all of that detail into what is more-or-less an extended diorama-like montage at the film’s conclusion detracts. And, of course, Spielberg can’t help but include his trademark fairy tale mythologizing here and there – it is ok, but the film is so strong otherwise that I could have done without those vintage touches.

But the best moments of the film come at the hands of two old pros who don’t share a minute of screen time: Tommy Lee Jones as Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. Both bring gravitas and pixie dust to their roles, more than holding their own with Day-Lewis. Their characters leap from the pages of history books and very quickly feel like people you have known personally for years. Absolutely remarkable work here.

14 thoughts on “Deja vu all over again: Lincoln

  1. oh, oh, oh…get this review out there to somebody…wow! fabulous! and as far as the obligatory should-not-have-happened book-ends (belonging on the cutting room floor)…there are two of those always: the front of the film with a flesh and blood lincoln presciently sitting christ-like as a statue, which we may currently visit — even if we are in a plant of the apes– to be genuflected at by not one but two sets of soldier boys,…first african-american and then wasps–then intermingling…at the foot of the LINCOLN MEMORAL in a wacky frieze! and the other book-end you mentioned: “The film also suffers from about four endings too many.” terrible directorial decisions. one of my favorite scenes…jones and sally…or tommy lee and mary chatting each other up in the receiving line! they both earned supporting actor academy awards right there and then! i expected SYBIL…but got a glimpse of who mary todd might have been had she ever had the opportunity to breathe in and out! JARED I WISH TO SEE MORE OF AS ULYSSES!!!!

    • thanks, Susie! love what you wrote here! and agree wholeheartedly – that whole bit at the beginning seemed so forced, though lewis suffered through it admirably. that was definitely a spielberg indulgence. and, yup, I forgot about that field/jones scene – that was a highlight for me and where I thought she sparked to full life. loved the movie thoroughly!

  2. i meant to write “tommy lee and sally”– “thaddeus and mary”…for posterity’s sake! AND i enjoyed sally/mary wanting the damned war over for personal reasons or there would be hell to pay at HOME for abe. AND rather than sybil, several times she gave us NORMA RAE…or, as i believe (who knows?) even better — a true human being showing what stuff whe was made of! like hillary? ;D

  3. Loved and agreed with most of your review. I thought Sally Fields was more than just adequate. I thought she brought a character we barely know cinematically to life. Would I have liked to see and learn mlore of her, yes, but the movie was not hers. Everything else I agree on. I hate that movies have to be so damned long to tell a story. And they’re getting longer and longer. Soon we’ll have to bring bagged dinners and a piss pot.

    • That’s great Madeleine! The more I think about her performance the next day, the more I agree with you. My mom reminded me about the scene between Field and Tommy Lee Jones in the reception line – that was pure gold, and Field nailed it. Thanks for your comment – and I agree wholeheartedly about the length of these movies!!

  4. madeleine! bravo…totally agree! i adored the domestic squabble–just endured one myself about two hours ago…and the carriage ride chat…and mary’s determination! AND her “war, war, war…is that alll you men talk about?” scarlett quality…only in a believable bod at a believable weight from a believable human being…who wondered how history books would twist her reputation. that carriage ride showed us two PEOPLE…two EXHAUSTED AND RELIEVED PEOPLE…bravo daniel and sally for that magic moment! HUMAN BEINGS like madeleine make facebook in all of its trivial banality worthwhile.

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