by Bill Wine
Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.
It’s a Lincoln memorial, a Lincoln history-al, and a Lincoln tutorial.
“Lincoln”brings the iconic Abraham Lincoln down to earth, but without diminishing him in any way.
What director Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis want to do is emancipate The Great Emancipator from his mythological pedestal and bring him back to recognizable life.
Together, they succeed, if not magnificently, then at least admirably. Look no further than the film’s 12 – count ‘em, 12 — Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
“Lincoln” (2012) is a biopic, to be sure, but it’s also a high-stakes political drama that focuses on the last four months, and one in particular, of the newly re-elected 16th president’s life and his political maneuvering as he works to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery. Oh, and by the way, to end and win the Civil War.
Most of the backroom politicking is connected to the close vote in the House of Representatives over amendment number 13.
The thought-provoking, Oscar-nominated screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner is loosely based on parts of the Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and any resemblance between the polarized Congress and political machinations of the past and those of the present are intentional, appropriate, and obvious.
The voice that Day-Lewis uses in his canny and perhaps uncanny interpretation (as opposed to impersonation) of Lincoln is startlingly, distractingly high-pitched – and said to be accurate.
Sally Field’s rendering of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who seems on the verge of hysteria and continues to blame her husband for their son Willie’s death, is an intriguing one (even if she is a generation too old for the role), as is Tommy Lee Jones’ cantankerous abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania congressman known as the Dictator of Congress.
Spielberg populates his dense film with relatively familiar faces – Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, James Spader, David Strathairn, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Tim Blake Nelson, Lee Pace – as if to help us assimilate all the material before us.
Day-Lewis is just as commanding and nuanced and even mesmerizing as you might expect, delving beneath the legend and giving us a Lincoln who is glib, shrewd, witty, stoop-shouldered, world-weary, melancholy, enigmatic, and generally soft-spoken but also capable of sudden bursts of rage.
Watching this world-class actor perform is a privilege in and of itself and observing his re-creation of this storied character is reason alone to experience “Lincoln.” Another is that, in winning the Oscar for Best Actor, he became the first actor in movie history to achieve that for a third time.
Of course, devising a populist entertainment out of the passage of an amendment – that is, turning the elusive and mostly unseen political process into a spectator sport – is not an easy task. This is, after all, a movie of ideas and principles and speeches, not battles and chases and explosions. And the film pays a price for its cognitive approach, piling on the exposition as it does and flirting with loosening the narrative thrust.
What’s perhaps most surprising is that, despite the film’s extended-civics-lesson sound and structure, despite its immersion in the mundane workings of the democratic process, and despite our knowledge of the outcome, the film generates a remarkable level of suspense.
Spielberg avoids his trademark stylistic or melodramatic flourishes, figuring that they might get in the way of or distract from the articulated ideas that convey the bulk of the subject matter. In other words, Spielberg, the master of visual spectacle, lets words lead the way this time out. Perhaps that’s why the Spielberg film that “Lincoln” actually feels closest to in style, spirit, and tone is his underappreciated “Amistad”(1997), which also worked hard and well to make history come alive.
This stately and dry but nonetheless powerful flesh-and-blood cinematic portrait of the brilliant political strategist and stirring orator manages to be of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.