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Lincoln

Here, there and everywhere:  Daniel Day-Lewis as the weary, rambling commander in chief in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.
Lincoln lives.  Mind you, he does nothing so outlandish in Steve Spielberg's latest film as stalking vampires.  But it is to the credit of this Lincoln that old Honest Abe is made so credibly real and yet seems no less mythical for the exercise.  Out of the history books. Up from the Tennessee marble of that famous sitting position in his stately memorial.  Down off all those pedestals that bear statues - five in Chicago alone -  of the 16th American president around the world. This 150 minute reanimation succeeds as it does owing to a recipe of roughly one part Spielbergian mastery and several parts Daniel-Day Lewis shape shifting.  If the Irish actor is mentioned in any chat amongst friends or co-workers, perhaps bruited between drinks at a gathering, you're likely to hear some seemingly facile testament to his brilliance.  Well, there are rare occasions when a truth is spoken by, is plainly obvious to all.  Some things, to borrow a favorite term from Mr. Lincoln, which Tony Kushner's screenplay would have us believe he appropriated from Euclid, are just self-evident.

So very compelling does Day-Lewis assume the form of Abraham Lincoln that the early scenes of Lincoln take a bit of getting used to.  This does not transpire in the manner required of a film like Oliver Stone's Nixon, with the need to push aside one's memories and images of Richard Nixon, at least temporarily, so room can be made for Anthony Hopkins worthwhile if impressionistic portrayal.  With this Lincoln, it's more a matter of, "Wow, it's really him."  Such is the combined success of Spielberg, Day-Lewis and some very capable make-up artistry.  

Lincoln begins in the early days of 1865, with the country well into the fourth year of its Civil War.  The first two scenes give us the two of the major dimensions of Steven Spielberg, demonstrate his enduring strength and a limiting weakness.  While the Civil War is often studied by enthusiasts of military strategy, keen to examine the war's  great maneuvers, Spielberg begins Lincoln with a battle scene which couldn't be less romanticized.  It's a rainy morass of muddy, brutal hand-to-hand combat.  Desperate swings of fists, bayonets rammed into soldiers' abdomens or ingloriously into their wet and straining backs.  It's a good if harsh way to begin the proceedings, a reminder just how brutal was the backdrop of the politics which follow.  And it's the sort of thing that Spielberg does better than most.  


Mr. Spielberg is also a rather accomplished entertainer.  But these instincts sometimes betray him.  That rough, early battle scene is followed by a fanciful meeting of both black and white troops by the president.  One of the black soldiers, while acknowledging the incremental progress wherein such a black soldier as he given the opportunity to  take up arms against the Confederacy, wonders aloud to Lincoln when the country might be ready to pay blacks soldier on an equal scale with whites, when the time might come for black officers.  Ultimately, both the black and white soldiers recite portions of the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln, as if they had been able to watch the speech repeatedly on YouTube.  This, as the Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) later says to an unfortunate colleague from across the aisle as he's tormenting the poor Democrat, "is a rhetorical exercise."  That is obviously the case, and I don't begrudge Spielberg this particular bit of staging as much as some critics.  The problem, as Lincoln proceeds through its dark night of the national soul, is the accumulation of these rhetorical flourishes.  

The real battle in Lincoln aside from the bloody skirmishes taking places on Civil War battlefields, is the president's attempt to pass the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives.  The eventual amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would outlaw slavery had already made its way through the Senate in 1864.  Lincoln tries to explain his sense of urgency to his cabinet during a meeting, why it is so important that the seemingly impossible passage of the amendment in the House of Representatives be pursued.  He's doesn't know if his Emancipation Proclamation will hold legal water once the war is settled and doesn't want to try to pass the more binding amendment in the House once the current slave states have returned to governance in Washington.

Tony Kushner's screenplay might be based partially on Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," but it's not a great deal of the 16th president's team that we see, nor much of the rivalry, in this Lincoln.  Mainly it's Secretary of State William Seward in the form of Daniel Strathairn, elegant of dress and closely coiffed grey hair.  No swirls of mustache or copses of unruly period beard for this politician.  Seward rules impatiently as Lincoln's second.  Poor Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln's Vice President as the story begins, largely brushed aside by history, is no where to be seen (He apparently was an infrequent visitor to the teeming White House and was succeeded after Lincoln's second inauguration on March 4, 1865 by the ill-fated Andrew Johnson).


Where Kearns Goodwin's influence does likely manifest itself in the story is in that political genius to which she refers in her book's subtitle.  Twenty-first century viewers might be surprised to see that such genius was only partially a matter of timing and human insight.  There is also a great deal of craven political will to be seen, hardly a modern invention.  The president is determined to do whatever it will take to gain the necessary votes for passage of the bill in the house, largely a matter of winning of lame duck Democrats (for whom any such granting of rights to former slaves would normally be anathema) who had lost their seats in the previous November's election.  The ever-practical Seward knows well that the blatant doling out of federal positions will reflect badly upon the administration, so he hires some political operatives to do the dirty work.

Beyond its great star turn for Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln is also a field day for character actors.  Those tasked to do the dirty work for the Lincoln Administration are three fine examples.  Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes, estimable both, essentially play the straight men of the trio to James Spader.  Mr. Spader is W.N. Bilbo, the name as suggestively antic as the man with the curling mustache and colorful waistcoat, the convex press of which, along with the roundness of face, indicate a man very well fed while little worried about who happens to be paying the tab.  Spader is clearly having a grand time and the role is a reminder how too-rare is his presence in film.  There's also good work to be had for Hal Holbrook as conservative Republican paterfamilias Preston Blair and the aforementioned Tommy Lee Jones as avowed opponent to slavery, Thaddeus Stevens.  Jones' combination of weariness and brimstone are at this point something of a national resource and it is always a pleasure to see them mined to such good end.  The actor's gravitas and the context in which it is employed is quite reminiscent of the redoubtable Michael Gambon, playing another wigged opponent to slavery in Michael Apted's Amazing Grace (2006).

Though given but brief time on screen, the most memorable of Lincoln's supporting performances might well be that of  Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens.
Haley conveys a genteel southern accent and bearing.  But those blue eyes, like buttons pressed upon some bogeyman, convey even more strongly a cold malevolence.  They seem not the dead eyes of a lost soul so much as the indicator of a soul's absence.  Mr. Haley is more chilling in his brief time as the Confederate Vice President as he was for the duration of his lauded work in Little Children.

Lincoln is that rare Hollywood film that employs a woman to play a character younger than her actual age.  This Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, 11 years the senior of Day-Lewis.  It's casting that makes a fair amount of sense, as Field so well exudes the famous first lady's pluck, lends her a puckish intelligence and bristles with anxieties barely and at times not at all contained.  And generally Ms. Field's performance works amid Kushner's screenplay, which takes pains to show the woman in fuller dimension than history has generally done.  "People are going to say I was crazy and that I ruined you life," Mary says to her husband as they take a carriage ride, Mrs. Lincoln speaking as much to history, or at least a given film audience, as to the man next to her.  Certainly, if anyone had excuse to lose her wits, it would have been Mary Todd Lincoln.  Beyond whatever bad mental chemistry with which she may have been afflicted, beyond recorded migraines and much physical illnesses, the woman buried three of her four sons and rather famously observed her husband's murder.

So, for the most part, Ms. Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln does work.  Only occasionally, as during a confrontation that results in Mr. Lincoln finally losing reign of his emotions, does this Mary Todd, buoyed by a white dress and hoop skirt like an inverted tea cup that would seem to have her almost floating upon the floor of the White House room, does this occasionally mad first lady seem to be drawn more from the pages of Lewis Carroll than American history. 


Tony Kushner’s screenplay usually has Mr. Lincoln a rather cool and amiable customer, despite the extraordinary stresses at work on the man, from the personal to the most profoundly universal.  Not to mention the pell-mell of the White House in 1865, which the screenwriter and director Speilberg depict as something perhaps rather too democratic, as if those revelers from the inauguration of Andrew Jackson had never left the premises.  As the president moves about these crowded rooms or pays visits outside the White House, moving freely among the people, it’s difficult, knowing what we of course all know, not to think, “For heaven’s sake, can’t we get a few Service Agents for the good man?!”  Alas the agency wasn’t around just yet.  Mother of all historical ironies, the agency was created by Lincoln on April 14, 1865, the very day of his assassination.  The legislation creating the agency sat on his desk that fateful night.  Spielberg no doubt takes liberties here as well, Lincoln moving about at times like a hooded Henry V the night before Agincourt.  But it does seem to be a matter of historical record that the president left the White House that night of April 14 without his primary bodyguard.  And later at Ford’s theater, the man who was charged to guard the president, whose name has somehow avoided the infamy visited upon poor Dr. Mudd, left to have a drink with Lincoln’s coachman at a nearby tavern, allowing the nefarious Booth to draw so close to the presidential head with his dread Derringer.    

What the chaotic White House of Spielberg and Kushner also reveals is another episode which demonstrates Lincoln's political will to win.  The president grants an audience to a couple from Missouri.   How do they stand on the issue of the pending bill in the House of Representatives?  As the war rages, the couple are very much for the granting of freedom to slaves.  Should the war be soon resolved, the matter of racial equality would be of rather less interest.  Barely containing his impatience, Lincoln urges the couple to bend the ear of their congressman, the clear implication being that the favor that they come to beg stands a better chance of being granted if they first scratch the presidential back.    



That poor presidential back looks in need of a good scratch in Lincoln.  Better yet, perhaps, a cosmic chiropractor.  It's not the commander and chief, but the father who enters the White House bedroom in which young Tad Lincoln (Gulliver McGrath)  is at play.  Eventually, the boy wants a ride on his father's back.  And while this was no young father (Lincoln at the time would have been on the verge of 56), the physical weariness with which Day-Lewis invests his character speaks to something more than the back-challenging strain of an exuberant twelve-year-old who wants a ride.  It's as if this Lincoln has had his back bowed with the weight of the entire country.  And so, perhaps, it was.

The performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln is as thorough as it is striking:  it extends from posture to gait, from emotion to the sometime varied instrument it finds in the voice of the 16th U.S. President.  This Lincoln of Day-Lewis plods with and up and down placement of the long legs.  He speaks in a voice that is actually less impressive as it rises to raspy heights.  When more conversational, Day-Lewis finds a vocal timbre that bespeaks both the Midwest origin and acquired erudition.  Lincoln may not have sounded just like this - and that confirmation is one thing about the man that the historical record lacks - but as is the case with most every aspect of this characterization, Daniel Day-Lewis has created something that seems credible and ever riveting.

Some of the pleasure in hearing this Lincoln hold forth is due to the finer points of Tony Kushner's script and Spielberg's ability to capture these moments.  From domestic intervals in the White House - the husband and wife talking while the former's stockinged feet dangle over the inadequate length of  a divan  - to many conversations between Lincoln and cabinet members, government officials or various others, many of the film's best moments emerge in the relative quiet of  such modest context.  Of course, this is merely a version of history and no doubt a burnished one at that, but there is in many of these scenes a connecting intelligence and coherence.

One amusing motif amid the larger themes is that of Lincoln the inveterate raconteur.  "Not another story!, cries Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton when the president is on the verge of easing war room tension with yet another yarn.  This, as historians would tell us, was probably the case.

Unfortunately, Kushner and Spielberg pile on and and too finely frame this grand storytelling.  A scene when Lincoln is preparing a telegram with instructions for dealing with a peace delegation from the Confederate government is perhaps the clearest example in which we're called to attention like so many daydreaming school kids.  Lincoln queries the young man responsible for sending the telegram and eventually expounds on the Greek mathematician:  "In his book, Euclid says this is self-evident. You see, there it is, even in that 2,000-year-old book of mechanical law. It is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other."

At such moments, Spielberg's weakest tendencies are amplified by the score by John Williams which leaves no room for ambiguity or the slightest complexity of feeling.  We hear the happy roll of banjo during  occasionally upbeat intervals, while the "Euclid" scene is marked by a clarion, indicating horn soaring above a rousing orchestra, leaving behind it a vapor trail of cheese.

Spielberg is cinema's great technician, but more than that.  Beyond the evocation of Capitol Hill, the Congressional chamber and White House interiors, there are brief moments of eloquence, as when Abraham and Tad Lincoln step behind the sheer curtain of a window to see what might be causing a fuss outdoors.  Tad, within the sweep of one of his father's long arms, eventually disappears in a wash of spectral white light.  The fleeting image carries the metaphorical significance of a country buried in the protective embrace of its president.  It also carries the sad knowledge of a boy who would himself be dead some six years hence.  (Oh, poor, poor, Mary Todd Lincoln).


Unfortunately, cinema's great technician also operates at times with the instincts of an overheated and even second-rate poet, unspooling excesses of rhyming couplets when a little blank verse is all that's needed.  So it is with Lincoln's climax.  The director gives us a perfectly elegiac image of the dark figure of the president shot from behind, plodding out of the White House for the last time, seen against a window aglow with mournful twilight.  This after he had taken his leave of his cabinet, with something to the effect, "It's time to go, but I'd rather stay."  Rhetorical flourish made by screenwriter, lovely accompanying image provided by director.

Of course, there's no need for spoiler alerts here, as we all know what awaits Lincoln at Ford's Theater.  But Spielberg carries on for two more unnecessary scenes.  One does occur at a theater.  Here, perhaps, some relative restraint, as we do not witness the assassination, but the announcement at another Washington theater that the president has been shot.  Unfortunately poor Tad is in attendance at this other venue and we hear his keening response to the news.  Then, the deathbed and more spectral whiteness, a blanket over the sprawled and lifeless figure of the dead president, the death bed encircled by onlookers in hushed grief.

The 150 minutes of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln might have better concluded it's sad business about five minutes earlier.  But there's no denying the director's assured work for most of its length, nor the details usually richly provided by the screenplay of Tony Kushner.  Most of all, it is typically magnetic work of Daniel Day-Lewis that might have carried this Lincoln for twice its length.

The 16th U.S. President, presiding at the corner of Western and Lawrence in Chicago.  
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