How fascinating that Steven Spielberg, one of the “movie brats” whose genre/action/effects-driven movies in the 1970s transformed the nature of the movie business and in so doing the American cinema, is once again ahead of the curve.
His magnificent “Lincoln” is a throwback to the kind of well-upholstered films his generation overthrew with a wave of shock and awe. Yet in reclaiming the old-style historical drama/biopic and making it his own, he imbues the film with a muscular vitality that blows away the showy and shallow artifice hipster filmmakers have saddled the genre with.
“Lincoln” is a brilliantly articulated, rigorously accurate and tough-minded historical drama that focuses on character and meaning over spectacle.
Younger film critics and indeed younger moviegoers may worry that Spielberg has entered a more contemplative period in his moviemaking. They may fret over the “slowness” of scenes and intense concentration on dialogue over action.
Yet when dialogue is this rich and scenes this electrifying, you welcome the opportunity to have time to grasp all the implications behind each historical moment.
Look, it was only a year ago that Spielberg helmed the 3D animated film “The Adventures of Tintin” and the World War I action-melodrama “War Horse.” So his career has always been on a zigzagging course.
For that matter, “Lincoln” is not such alien territory for Spielberg as he has been a student of history with such films as “Schindler’s List,” “Amistad,” “Empire of the Sun” and “Munich” and is known to want to make a Lindbergh film.
But Abe Lincoln reps a formidable challenge to any director.
Filmmakers as diverse as D.W. Griffith and John Ford have made worthy biopics about the almost mythic figure that Abraham Lincoln casts over American history. (However, no one seems willing to take on the other great historical president, George Washington.)
After trial and error, Spielberg and his “Munich” screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Tony Kushner, smartly hit upon a Lincoln film that focuses entirely on the final four months of the man’s life.
Many themes of his career and presidency were coming to a head then but this focus also allows the film to bring to life his nearly forgotten yet defining battle to pass the 13th Amendment, permanently abolishing slavery in the United States.
The film catches the great man off guard as it were. He isn’t making speeches — well, he makes one that lasts all of 40 seconds — signing proclamations or striding through history but rather entangled in a domestic crises involving his wife and son and overseeing political in-fighting where only shrewd strategies and infinite patience with men unwilling to compromise will yield results.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln hues closely to the historical Lincoln. Sightly stooped, perhaps after years of conversing with men much shorter than the gangly 16th president, and given to telling long-winded stories to prove points, he has a playful though sagacious manner that hypnotizes a viewer.
His face is a craggy relief map of inner stress. All presidents start to look years older even in their first terms (witness our current president) but Lincoln, newly re-elected to a second term, has a haggard face whose already pitted flesh seems to sink under a mighty weight.
He controls a cabinet meeting or an argument with his wife through loquacious language loaded with metaphors and references to the past.
He can talk directly when he needs to, such as his argument why with the war coming to an end now is the time to rid American soil of slavery once and for all. But his preferred style is to slowly circle a subject, scrutinizing it from all sides as he reasons with people.
Thus Spielberg and Day-Lewis have produced a very human Lincoln, at times even doubtful of his own actions and beset by fierce opponents who scorn the power grabs he believed necessary to hold the union together.
He is ever a lawyer, able to argue either side and never fully convinced where “right” will most readily align except — a big exception — when it came to passage of the 13th amendment by the House of Representatives. (The Senate had already past it.)
The screenplay derives from a number of sources but credits only Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” Published in 2005, the book argues that by inviting his three bitterest rivals into his war cabinet, Lincoln demonstrated his political acumen and presented a united front against rebel forces.
Getting passage of the 13th Amendment before hostilities ceased was crucial to Lincoln’s fervent desire to rid America of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation rested on dubious legal grounds as did his suspension of habeas corpus and media censorship.
Were the Confederate States to surrender before a prohibition was the law of the land, the southern states might very well — and possibly legally! — return to slavery.
He lets his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn with a dignity that easily ruffles) spearhead the effort in pubic but is not above hiring political operatives (we’d call them lobbyists) such as a gang of three played with comic zest by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson.
To gain Republican votes, Lincoln is also not above of conspiring with its power broker, Francis Preston Blair, played as a rumpled and crusty pol by Hal Holbrook. Blair prefers an immediate peace treaty with the Confederacy over any Constitutional amendment.
Blair can deliver votes but only if he believes the president is listening to him. It’s a stall by Lincoln but one that may turn into a necessary end game. No one has a crystal ball.
Lincoln’s polar opposite in terms of compromise and reconciliation is another bitter opponent he chooses not to underestimate, the fiery Republican abolitionist, Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, a thing of cantankerous beauty).
Ostensibly on the same side, Stevens could do more to scuttle Lincoln’s strategies by an outburst on the House floor over his “radical” opinions concerning racial equality then the strident opposition by Southern sympathizers among the Democrats.
Lincoln’s other battle front is in the White House itself. His wife Mary Todd (Sally Field in one of the more sympathetic portrayals of Lincoln’s “mad” wife I can recall) still suffers depression, as does Lincoln, from the death of their son, Willie.
So when her Harvard son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) demands that his father let him enlist, she just as adamantly insists her husband will do no such thing. Thus the president, in the midst of the political fight of his life, finds himself torn between his wife and eldest son.
The film’s opening scene shows ferocious hand-to-hand combat in the mud between soldiers where killings take place up close with hands, knives and bayonets. It’s the only battle scene in the film.
Toward the end, Lincoln is driven in a carriage over a battlefield but most of the film takes place in wood-paneled interior sets or superbly designed exterior sets that represent the Washington D.C. of its day.
This then is the film’s chessboard. The film moves from various White House rooms (most dingy and overloaded with chintz) to the House of Representatives, unpaved streets, dark taverns, cheap hotels and elegant townhouses where the players in this high-stakes drama reside.
(Richmond, Virginia, would you believe, doubles for the nation’s 1865 capital with its Capitol Building doing the honors for the House of Representatives.)
Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography operates in a rich palette of mostly earth tones and interiors filled with smoke from cigars and pipes while at night these are lit with gas and oil lamps that cast vivid fire colors on faces.
John William contributes an understated score that absorbs many of the tunes of that era or at least it seems that way.
Production and costume designers Rick Carter and Joanna Johnston manage a miracle in creating history without embalming it. The sets feel lived in as do the costumes whether they be Mary Todd’s gowns over a strongly corseted body or the mud-caked uniforms of bone-weary soldiers.
Venue: AFI Fest
Opens: November 9, 2012 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production companies: DreamWorks Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, 20th Century Fox and Reliance Entertainment present in association with Participant Media and Dune Entertainment an Amblin Entertainment/Kennedy-Marshall Co. production
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Joseph Cross, Jared Harris
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Tony Kushner
Based in part on the book by: Doris Kearns Goodwin
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy
Executive producers: Daniel Lupi, Jeff Skokll, Jonathan King
Director of photography: Janusz Kaminski
Production designer: Rick Carter
Music: John Williams
Costume designer: Joanna Johnston
Editor: Michael Kahn
PG-13 rating, 150 minutes