Friday, January 18, 2013

‘Lincoln’ (2012) directed by Steven Spielberg, 13th January 2013

Lincoln’ oozes importance.  Every frame of the film is polished to a mirror sheen, aware of its cinematic quality and its unbending morality. Considering the film is largely a series of debates between red-faced, bald men in smoky rooms, arguing about complex political minutia using surprisingly technical language it’s absolutely fascinating.  ‘Lincoln’ functions in complete confidence that its subject matter is interesting enough to keep an audience’s attention. 

Lincoln’ isn’t a biopic of Abraham Lincoln, it’s an examination of a crucial period in world politics in which he’s a crucial factor.  The goal is get the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution approved, an amendment that outlaws slavery.  The politicking here is unabashedly complex, factions within the Democratic and Republican parties compete against each other for political ground and the American Civil War loom larges in the background.  Occupying this tempestuous political landscape are familiar names like William H. Seward, Thaddeus Stevens, Alexander H. Stephens and Ulysses S. Grant.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.
I’m only broadly familiar with the history presented here; I know what happened, but I don’t know much about the why or how.  American children are taught these events as a matter of course, but I suspect international audiences are going to have to pay slightly more attention to follow proceedings.  Having said that, Spielberg is a master populist and even if you lose track of the precise details, you’ll still be able to follow the plot.  The central thrust of the film is getting the amendment passed, and our character’s motivations for opposing or supporting it are a mixture of the ideological and the personal, something which makes these occasionally fusty people relatable.

Despite being directed by Spielberg and featuring an embarrassment of great actors, the biggest thing this film has got going for it is Daniel Day-Lewis’ as Abraham Lincoln.  Day-Lewis is probably the finest actor working in Hollywood, and completely vanishes into a deceptively difficult role, a man everyone thinks they already know, yet no-one really knows.   Day-Lewis’ plays Lincoln as a man aware of the gears of history grinding around him.  While other characters frantically scurry about, he’s calm and still, softly spoken, good tempered and charismatic.  He’s perceptibly different from the other politicians we see, someone who can see the bigger picture.  We see Lincoln in conversation with his party, his political and military opponents and his family and he behaves in the same manner to them all.  This allows Spielberg and Day-Lewis to position Lincoln as not only a loving father to his children, but also, implicitly, to his country. 

Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln
We see Lincoln as a character given to folksy, almost Biblical parables concealing sharp arguments, which underline his magnetic charisma and intelligence.  But though Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a spellbinding orator you can get an idea of his state of mind simply through the way he carries himself.  The bloodshed of the Civil War weighs heavily upon him, he treats Union and Confederate losses as an inestimable tragedy and holds himself partly responsible for the carnage.  In an excellent, dialogue free scene he tours a battlefield, viewing the shattered corpses of soldiers.  Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a strong leader, but you see the strain of the dead in the way he’s ever-so-slightly hunched inwards.  Simply put, I can’t imagine anyone else being remotely as good as he is in this role.

Leaving Day-Lewis aside for a moment, Spielberg has assembled a hell of a cast, with even minor characters played by luminaries like Jackie Earle Haley, Sally Field, Jared Harris and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  It’s tricky to stand out in a field like this, but Tommy Lee-Jones manages it, providing a vital idealistic counterpoint to the pragmatic Lincoln.  Much of ‘Lincoln’ is about the necessities of the political process, and Lee-Jones portrays Stevens as an uncompromising grump, someone who’s rock solid in their convictions.  It’s a passionate, charismatic turn, and his flowery-languaged unpleasantness towards his pro-slavery opponents lightens the mood while making a nice contrast to the diplomacy of our central character.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln
Visually, Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski create a richly textured world from a series of stuffy wood-panelled rooms.  Kaminski makes expert use of light as it streams in through the windows of the murky rooms, bathing our characters in shimmering white light.  These rays of light accentuate the deep, black shadows that play across the character’s faces.  Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is craggy and lined, and the chiaroscuro effect accentuates this, underlining his monumental gravitas.  Outside these dusty room, the world 1865 is constructed with the kind of immaculate period attention to detail you’d expect from a Spielberg production.  What impresses is that they do not linger on their production design, everything is shot in a matter-of-fact way, which helps keep things feeling vivid rather than as distant history.

For all that the film does brilliantly it is not without flaws, and they tend to be a result of Spielberg’s tendency for schmaltz.  Considering the subject matter is the abolition of slavery, the black characters in the film function primarily as an emotional backdrop, weeping gratefully in the background rather than as developed characters.  It would be unconscionable to portray this moment in history without having black characters, but here they’re cyphers; characterless representatives of all black Americans past and future.

If you like men arguing in smoky rooms BOY is this the film for you!
In a film full of subtlety, aspects like these stand out like a sore thumb.   This extends to the score, which undermines some delicate moments with a sledgehammer bluntness.  It’s intensely frustrating when we see an outstanding scene where Tommy Lee-Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens decides that his dignity and reputation have to be sacrificed for the greater good.  The synthesis between the audience’s and character’s emotions is perfectly established.  But as Stevens marches away in triumph we get beaten us over the head by a ridiculously bombastic bit of John Williams’ score.  There’s nothing more annoying than being manipulated like this, especially when we were already experiencing what the film ‘wanted’ us to feel.

It's a shame there's a fly in the ointment because I struggle to think too many other films successfully connect backroom political manoeuvring to real-world problems this well.  At its core this is a film about how government must function: a chaotic, messy gaggle of egos all pulling in different directions.  Politicians are shown as creatures of all stripes, from noble and intelligent to cowardly and corrupt and everything in between.  It’s fortunate that the amendment being fought for is so self-evidently noble, because ‘Lincoln’ doesn’t hesitate to admit that ‘Honest Abe’ wasn’t above using some pretty dodgy backdoor trickery to ensure its passing.

 The film doesn’t set out to immortalise Abraham Lincoln as a saint.  Spielberg and Day-Lewis don't let us forget that this man is just that, a man.  Grounding the myth is important because Abraham Lincoln didn’t single-handedly deliver US from slavery.  He was an important factor in getting this amendment passed, but not the sole force behind it.  What got slavery outlawed was debate: convincing others of the morality of your arguments.  If Abraham Lincoln was anything like the character in ‘Lincoln’, that message is the finest possible tribute a film could make.


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