The Film, Video
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December 1, 2014
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Want to See a Great Film? Try Lincoln!
by James Dalessandro
Early platinum print of Abraham Lincoln, in his fancy lawyering days. photo: courtesy National Archives
I have long fancied the notion that a film critic is indeed someone who "takes the field after the battle has ended, and shoots the wounded," an adage I have never been able to attribute to its source. I feel that criticism should yield to commentary, and that what is most missing from contemporary critiques has been a writer's perspective—a film and fiction writer's perspective—that leans heavily on the inviolable truth that the principal objective of film is still a good story well told.
It's not praise nor condemnation that's required, but a thoughtful observation, with an eye toward what works and what puzzles, who might enjoy and who might not. So, from a writer's standpoint: “Lincoln”.
Who loves it? Anyone who loves great film writing, acting and directing should plan to see “Lincoln” with Daniel Day Lewis as Abe. I saw it last night at an industry screening at Lucas Digital Arts in San Francisco.
Based in part on the book "Team of Rivals" (2005) by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the screenplay was written by Tony Kushner, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright/Emmy Award winner of "Angels in America" (1993), the finest piece of dramatic theater I've seen in many years ("Heaven is a place that looks a lot like San Francisco.")
Who doesn't love it? Some might say “Lincoln” was slow. I found it intimate, layered and infinitely moving. It is long at two-and-a-half hours, but given the subject matter, I was glad to spend every minute of that time in Lincoln's White House, chaotic as it was.
The film covers the final four months of Lincoln's Presidency. The spine of the story is how everyone around him tried to discourage Lincoln from pushing the 13th Amendment to outlaw slavery, which was his attempt at legitimizing his Emancipation Proclamation as the law of the land. Even those closest to him, his unstable wife Mary and his devious cabinet, campaigned vociferously against the measure. The strength of the film is the astonishing dialogue from Kushner, and a performance by Daniel Day Lewis that is so nuanced and emotionally charged that I was convinced someone had managed to film Lincoln himself.
Director Steven Spielberg sets up a low angle shot on the set of 'Lincoln'. photo: courtesy S. Spielberg
It shows Lincoln in all his humanity: interrupting every debate to tell a hokey story or homily that somehow ties back to the subject at hand—even if he's the only one who gets the connection. It shows Lincoln, the brilliant and largely self-educated lawyer, laying out a complex legal argument for why the amendment is necessary in such an adroit and convincing manner that only a few could counter his logic with the one tool they retained—that blacks are less than whites, and God ordained it.
Yet Lincoln never wavered from his commitment that without the 13th Amendment, those who he had freed might well be returned to slavery, as the "Emancipation Proclamation" was little more than a War Powers doctrine, seizing the "property" of those in rebellion against the Union.
It shows Lincoln as master politician, bribing (literally), coercing, pleading, inspiring any and all to get what he needed: 20 votes from his Democratic opposition in the House of Representatives, and every single vote of his Republican Majority (contrary to the current state of the political parties.)
Despite it's intimacy—the sets are virtually limited to the Congress, the White House, Lincoln's home and the Washington Telegraph Office from which Lincoln practically ran the Union Army—the cinematography, costumes and make-up are breath taking. An enthralling, inspiring, towering piece of drama, with a brilliant script and the most subtle, understated directing that Spielberg has employed since "Schindler's List" (1993), it is filled with brilliant performances including Tommy Lee Jones as Pennsylvania's fiery humanitarian, Congressman Thaddeus Smith, Sally Field in a brief but unforgettable Mary Lincoln, and a marvelous turn by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the oldest Lincoln son, Robert.
It is a film that requires your attention, and fills that void for all of us who rail at the current state of American film, in which "drama" has become a dirty word on the studio lots. I was one of those who had long wondered when Steven Spielberg would turn his vision from populist film to human drama: his effort here re-ups the stature of the man who brought us "Schindler's List".
"Lincoln" is that good, that deft, than unforgettable. Daniel Day Lewis' performance, at the risk of plagarism or parody, should belong to the ages. It will not dazzle everyone, this "Lincoln", but I could hardly speak when I walked out.
It will be in theaters November 9th.
Posted on Oct 30, 2012 - 01:18 AM