Saturday, November 17, 2012

Great Performances, Timely Reminders Make Lincoln an Instant Classic

Around this time of year, you are going to inevitably get an influx of movies that are designed with only one purpose in mind: gaining Oscar nominations and wins for their stars and directors. A few years back, you had "Atonement", a movie that wouldn't have found release at any other time of year. You have also had movies like "Dreamgirls" (Eddie Murphy) and "Push: A Novel by Sapphire" (Mo'Nique) that featured comedians dirtying themselves up for dramatic effect in an effort to win statuettes.

Despite the gold-imbued motives of films like these, we continue to go to movies around this time of year with the expectation that we will be moved in some serious way by what we are seeing on screen, and of all the films to be released this year during Oscar season, "Lincoln" is probably the best example of a movie made specifically with the February ceremony in mind. One look at the cast list, which includes Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones, and one look at who is in the director's chair, Steven Spielberg, reveals all you need to know about what 20th Century Fox intended to do with the picture: be a critical success and an Oscar-worthy film.

Even with the weight of expectations that is ALWAYS heaped upon Day-Lewis, whose turns as Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood" and Bill the Butcher in "Gangs of New York" are revered by film buffs, "Lincoln" still shines brightly. You can see why Spielberg instantly thought of the reclusive English actor for the role when the movie first went into development several years ago, as Day-Lewis offers up arguably the most accurate portrayal of our 16th President ever preserved in celluloid.

From his nasally voice (a departure from the traditional rich baritone associated with such a great public speaker) to his odd gait (as described by contemporaries of Lincoln, it was almost without spring that he would plod one foot in front of the other), to even his emphasis on spinning fables to prove points in conversation, Day-Lewis clearly clothed himself in President Lincoln's persona for quite some time to nail this performance. There is an earnestness that has always been associated with Lincoln that Daniel nailed in this role, but he also brought to the fore two other key characteristics that are perhaps overlooked when looking at "Honest Abe" through the prism of what he accomplished.

The first and arguably most important trait of Lincoln's that Spielberg explored in this film was his willingness to cut political deals. At several points in the film, Lincoln mentions the invocation of war powers as his reason for executing certain actions, including issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. This willingness to go above and beyond to protect the Constitution of the United States really drove Lincoln during the Civil War, and that was on full display when he advised his Secretary of State William Seward to engage in a practice of trading patronage jobs for votes on the controversial 13th Amendment, a process that provides the narrative backbone of the film.

Trading jobs for favors may seem like a relatively new phenomenon in an era where Congressmen frequently graduate from the ranks of the elected into the lobbying fields as soon as their terms end, but it dates back quite a long time upon a closer inspection of our history. Lincoln does a lot of moral soul-searching in the film, but on this one point that could easily be construed as below board, he does very little of that. It was refreshing to see Lincoln portrayed in this way, as opposed to the standard "paternal figure" that movies and documentaries have painted him to be for most of the modern era.

The other trait of Lincoln's that Day-Lewis does a great job of emphasizing is his complicated understanding of his relationship with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln. Field did a tremendous job in capturing what historians consider to be the true representation of the mentally-troubled First Lady, showing both her irrationality (such as the way she went about mourning the death of their son Willie) and her politically savvy intellect (when she verbally undressed several Senators at a White House gala). There was a reason that she was considered such a catch in Springfield, Illinois during the 1840's, and that was readily apparent along with her foibles in this film.

Day-Lewis had several interesting scenes where he was parrying Field's attacks concerning the desire of their eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln to join the Union Army at the tail end of the war. The mixture of homely patience (a Lincoln staple) was interrupted at several times by an expressive and angry President, which cinema has largely left untouched. This revelation of the multitude of roles that Lincoln was forced to play as Commander in Chief during such a terrible war was a Godsend for the history buffs among us, and many kudos need to go to the filmmakers for capturing it so effectively.

The rest of the supporting cast was splendid (special mentions should go to Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, as well as David Costabile in an excellent turn as Representative James Ashley), but one actor who nearly stole the film was David Strathairn as Seward. Every time he was on screen, you could almost feel his personal wishes permeating through the screen, but he managed to stifle it and do what Lincoln felt was best for the nation. Much like people like Rahm Emanuel did when he took over the role of Chief of Staff for President Barack Obama despite his dreams of becoming the first Jewish Speaker of the House, Seward set aside personal ambition to be part of Lincoln's "Team of Rivals" (which is also the title of the excellent book by Doris Kearns Goodwin that the movie was partly based upon) and did a great job in corralling votes for passage of the amendment banning slavery.

Along with the lessons the film provided about what Americans can accomplish in times of great peril, as well as knowing when history has its hand on your shoulder, perhaps the one lesson that the American public needs to take away from this film is the place that a spirited national dialogue has in our politics. You will constantly hear complaints from voters that the atmosphere in Washington is toxic, but they unfortunately play right into that when they tune into cable news channels and vote for extremists on both sides of the aisle to represent them in Congress. When the retention rates for incumbents is so high, and yet the approval rates for the body as a whole hover below 10%, there is a serious disconnect, and just wishing for an improvement of discourse isn't going to do anything.

What this movie showed in great detail was that it is possible to have insanely polarizing points of view, but in the end, after you've debated your heart out, you end up hammering out some type of a compromise and shaking hands. Those kinds of debates are what the United States needs to have in the months and years ahead as our country continues to emerge into a new era when we aren't the only big fish in the pond anymore, and if "Lincoln" showed us anything, it's that even in a cauldron of rapidly changing political winds, it is still possible to do great things that will have a positive impact in the future.

We'll have to see other films like "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Django Unchained" before we can declare any Oscar races won or lost, but on the sole basis of strength of casting and ability to teach us lessons about our current time, "Lincoln" is in a class of its own. Daniel Day-Lewis may very well win yet another Best Actor Oscar, and it would be a testament to his dedication to making sure that an American icon got a factual and impassioned representation on the big screen.

In the end, that's all we as a people can ask for as we look for role models from the past to help guide our way into the future. 

1 comment:

  1. I had a wonderful time with this flick, even though I will say that I didn’t love it like everybody else seems to be. However, it’s still a good film and one that will be popping up a lot come Oscar season next year. Good review Jim.