Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Lincoln Long but not Dry

Director Steven Spielberg takes on a tall order approaching a film centered on the 16th U.S. president on his quest for emancipation. And he fulfills his task quite well.

Set during the Civil War, president Abraham Lincoln (the uber talented Daniel Day-Lewis) plans a strategy with his Cabinet on how to convince the Republican party to vote for the 13th Amendment. This is problematic for the Southern states--ending slavery will free their labor force and dissipate their economy. Lincoln then faces the hurdles of which to end first: the war or slavery?  Ending slavery before the war will result in more fatalities on both sides. Ending the war before the 13th Amendment passes will kill it automatically; without the promise of ending the war, Republican House representative have no incentive for passing it.

Although the ominous presence of war is present during this film, Spielberg concentrates more on Lincoln's attempt towards emancipation and passing the 13th Amendment *spoiler alert: it does*. He also doesn't shy away from depicting Lincoln in a gentle nature. There are these quiet moments Lincoln shares with his son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), carrying him to bed, watching him play with wooden soldiers as he waits for the House's final vote, holding him after he hears the church bells' ring when the votes are tallied. He also appears aloof, yet wise at times, recounting stories--about Ethan Allen, telling his men what scares the shit out of radicals--he had once heard as if lost in a contemplative trance. This is where Day-Lewis shines. He becomes stern and upset when the situation requires him to, like when he argues with Mary Todd (Sally Field) about his lack of grievance over his son, but his tranquil moments are what stood out to me.

And with a running time of 150 minutes, Spielberg had plenty of time to showcase these moments. In moments without Lincoln, these long takes seemed unnecessary. And yet despite the film's length (and trust me I become restless after an hour) I found myself completely engaged from start to finish. There may have been a minute or two, at most, of war action depicted, but the real battle was in Washington, in heated debates between Thaddeus Stevens, Democrat, (Tommy Lee Jones) and Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), a slavery advocate. Lee Jones is just superb, he appears cold and disinterested, but he is perhaps the most passionate during these House debates going back and forth with Pace with witty banter and political rhetoric, even slimy Republicans are equal, Stevens shouts. Again, Spielberg could have done without showing so much, particularly when we see Jones come home with the Amendment. Sometimes less is more.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing Lincoln's son Robert, also felt unnecessary and underused. However as lengthy as the film was, it was not dry with performances. Lee Jones, Day-Lewis and Field were the clear attention grabbers here, but also worth mentioning were Jared Harris playing Ulysses S. Grant, Hal Holbrook playing a foul-mouthed Preston Blair and a always amusing James Spader playing W.N. Bilbo, a cohort of Lincoln trying to gather Amendment votes.

Visually, Lincoln was almost distracting in how beautiful it was. Spielberg teams up with D.P. Janusz Kaminski yet again and produce aesthetic awe. Everything from the production design (Rick Carter), costumes by Joanna Johnston, make up and overall look of the image were striking. The candle desk lamps that illuminated scenes added more depth and shadow to Lincoln's face, showing his age; during the end of the war Gen. Grant tells Lincoln how in the past year he has aged ten years. There's also a really nice shot in the beginning where we see Lincoln and Mary Todd's reflections in mirrors during a bedroom conversation.

Spielberg hasn't quite lived up to his reputation in past years, but Lincoln is a step in making up for it.

Rating: B+

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