Sunday, November 25, 2012

Too-reverent "Lincoln" lacks spark


Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, James Spader, John Hawkes, Gloria Reuben, Jared Harris, Bruce McGill, Lee Pace, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jackie Earl Haley, many others

Abraham Lincoln may be the one American president who remains completely immune to trivialization. Being on the face of our lowest-value currency hasn’t cheapened him in the slightest, nor has being turned into a vampire hunter. Even bad movies about him, I suspect (not having seen the vampire hunter movie), treat him with the kind of respect reserved exclusively for Indisputably Great Men.

So, too, does Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which is far from being a bad movie—though it’s not quite a great one, either. Without question it’s an intelligent and honorable attempt to bring the Great Emancipator down to earth by depicting him as both a shrewd politician, not above resorting to ethically questionable tactics to achieve his goals, and a loving but flawed husband and father who was sometimes better at connecting with strangers than with his own family. Still, despite its best intentions it too often has the feel of a hagiography, almost like it can’t help kneeling before an invisible shrine.

That’s Spielberg, some critics might say, yet there’s no doubt the film belongs just as much to its star, Daniel Day-Lewis, and perhaps even more to its screenwriter, playwright Tony Kushner (best known for Angels in America), who previously worked on the script for Spielberg’s “Munich.” Here, drawing from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, Kushner focuses on the last, greatest legislative accomplishment of Lincoln’s presidency (and his life): getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a fractious, bitterly divided Congress in the final days of the Civil War. Time was of the essence, as Lincoln knew he had to secure passage before the return of the Confederate states who would surely block it. To do this he not only had to mediate tensions within his own party—between the radicals who wanted greater enfranchisement for blacks and the more moderate wing who prioritized making peace with the South—but also had to find a way to persuade at least some Democrats to vote for the amendment. This, in turn, required extensive behind-the-scenes political manipulation, intimidation, and, in certain cases, outright bribery.

We see all this unfold on screen, including Lincoln’s own role in quietly setting these stratagems in motion, all the while maneuvering to delay peace negotiations with the Confederacy without appearing to do so. Knowing better than to risk tarnishing his own public image, he delegates much of the dirty work to his trusted Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), who in turn delegates to a trio of shady operators (played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) the task of sussing out Democrat vulnerabilities and pressure points to line up “yes” votes. Lincoln reserves his own direct pressure only for a select few—party allies or others he knows he can persuade with a personal appeal.

The closed-door strategy sessions and backroom arm-twisting are the most interesting scenes in the movie, along with the scenes of heated debate on the House floor. Watching legislators in old-timey garb publicly abuse each other is always entertaining, especially when you’ve got Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the radical Republicans and master of the blistering put-down. (In showcasing the legislative process, warts and all, “Lincoln” is reminiscent of the underrated “Amazing Grace,” a little-seen 2006 film about the efforts of British abolitionist William Wilberforce to get Parliament to ban the slave trade in Britain.)

But somewhat perversely, “Lincoln” tends to lose energy whenever its focus shifts from the political plot to the man behind the plot. Kushner devotes a fair amount of attention to Lincoln’s rocky relationship with his wife, Mary (Sally Field), and his eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), primarily from the perspective of how they affected his motivation to pass the bill. However, these family elements end up functioning more as distractions than as integral parts of Lincoln’s moral universe. While Sally Field makes an impressively fierce Mary, even she can’t forge an organic connection to the rest of the film. And in her scenes with DDL, the two seem to be acting at each other rather than with each other—which may have been intended as a commentary on the actual Lincoln-Mary Todd dynamic, but doesn’t feel emotionally convincing.

As for DDL, he’s undoubtedly a great actor, and he brings a great presence to Lincoln, while painstakingly evoking the man’s mannerisms, reedy voice, and penchant for telling offbeat jokes and stories. Yet there’s something about the performance, even in Lincoln’s private moments, that feels like it’s being played on a stage, and has the effect of putting the audience at a distance. Some of this may be a reflection of Kushner’s script, which seems more interested in showing the effect Lincoln had on others than any internal struggles or doubts he may have had. More of it may be due to Spielberg, who’s demonstrated a tendency to treat history—for some reason, American history especially—with excessive reverence, and to mistake solemnity for gravitas. As in “Amistad,” Spielberg’s last attempt to deal with this country’s history of slavery, his choices in pacing, visual framing, lighting, even musical cues (courtesy of ol’ reliable John Williams) turn what should be a gripping tale of political gamesmanship into a gravely respectful reenactment of History with a capital “H.” There are also far too many shots of minor characters gazing at Lincoln with an awestruck expression, as if they're looking at God Himself.

Whatever the reasons, for a movie that’s so much about the messiness of the legislative process, “Lincoln” feels surprisingly sterile, static, and (ironically for a Spielberg picture) emotionally flat. Urgency, turmoil, passions are signaled, but somehow not conveyed, or conveyed through the filter of Lincoln’s transcendent, all-pervasive presence. As Lincoln himself would probably tell us if he could, his last few months on this earth were surely a lot less stately—and a lot more exciting. He deserved a film that captured that sense of instability and uncertainty, rather than muffling it in a cloak of historical inevitability.



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