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Steven Spielberg’s Sober, Masterly “Lincoln”

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Film history will record that Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” – which depicts how Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) engineered the House’s passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery – was released three days after the first black President was reelected.

There is a further symmetry in President Obama’s appeal in his stirring victory speech to “one nation” and Lincoln’s unstinting adherence, emphasized in the movie, to the idea of “one common country.” The Irish Times has suggested that historians may one day put Obama’s speech “on a par” with the Gettysburg Address. “Like Lincoln after the Union defeated the Confederacy, Obama sought to unite a divided country,” the paper wrote yesterday (notwithstanding the fact that Lincoln gave his most famous oration in 1863). As did Lincoln, Obama began his speech with a reference to the establishing of American independence. Obama’s campaign slogan, “Forward,” is also a Lincolnian precept.

“Lincoln,” however, doesn’t need the imprimatur of Obama’s presidency to be regarded as a masterly depiction of the epochal moment in which abolition was achieved and the complicated political finessing – at times, finagling – that brought it about. Completing Spielberg’s unofficial trilogy of films about slavery and its legacy, following “The Color Purple” (1985) and “Amistad” (1997), it is the sober, mature work of a director who excels whenever he reins in his natural tendency to sentimentalize his stories and doesn’t slip into default mode as a brilliant but sometimes facile metteur-en-scène.

The film is not entirely without sentimentalism. A subplot, which leads to a histrionic marital argument between the President and Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), concerns their undiminished grief over the 1862 death of their third son, Willie, and their fears for their eldest, Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt), who, shaken by the sight of a pile of amputated limbs, quits Harvard to serve under General Grant (Jared Harris). Lincoln’s affection for their 11-year-old, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), invariably dressed in a boy-size Union Army uniform, is less cloying than might have been anticipated for a Spielberg film.

As regards image-making, Spielberg is restrained by the dense, dialogue-heavy screenplay written by Tony Kushner, who also penned “Munich” but on this showing remains a dramatist at heart. It focuses on Lincoln’s strenuous efforts between January and April 1865 to end slavery and the Civil War, instead of winning peace without abolition. Kushner’s Lincoln forces his supporters (including a trio of conniving lobbyist-fixers played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) to bribe and cajole 20 Democratic representatives to vote with Lincoln’s moderate Republicans for the amendment.

There are visual flourishes. The movie begins with an appalling image, reminiscent of the carnage at the start of “Saving Private Ryan,” of black Union soldiers locked in a death struggle with Confederates in a quagmire. There is another when the hunched and sorrowful Lincoln tours the corpse-strewn hell of Petersburg, the day after it fell to the Union. Spielberg even enters Lincoln’s unconscious through a spectral dream redolent of one of Frodo Baggins’s phantasmagorical episodes.

Mostly, though, the film unfolds in darkened rooms, such as that in which Lincoln impresses his agenda on his Cabinet; the Republican chambers, where as a raconteur he pointedly regales (or irritates) party members and, in an ominous nocturnal scene, captivates his two devoted young secretaries; or the House, where the fearsome, absurdly bewigged abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, who downplays Stevens’s alleged malevolence) battles with such hard-line Democrats as the dyspeptic George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie) and the flamboyant Fernando Wood (Lee Pace). The stars of these sequences are Kushner’s exchanges, laced with period idioms but not so much so that they’re alienating, and Janusz Kamiński’s chiaroscuro cinematography – more static than is common in Spielberg pictures like the restless “War Horse.”

David Strathairn and Hal Holbrook give nuanced performances as Lincoln’s argumentative Secretary of State William H. Seward and Preston Blair, the creaky old editor and politician who with Lincoln’s consent travels to Richmond to solicit a peace commission from Jefferson Davis. As Mary Lincoln’s maid Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave, Gloria Reuben is moving in an intimate scene outside the White House that has Lincoln candidly admitting he doesn’t know black people.

It parallels the early conversation in which two black soldiers talk easily with him – one even giving the Commander in Chief some caustic backchat about the postwar prospects for blacks. If “Lincoln” errs in neglecting its title character’s conservative traits, it was hardly to be expected that a Steven Spielberg film would muddy the waters by demonstrating that the Great Emancipator was, for example, capable of making racist jokes. Neither structurally nor textually (still less psychologically) is the film complex – it’s a celebration of a practical visionary and a nation-mender. It could hardly have been a dialectic. It could have been a hagiography, but Lincoln’s loaded instructing of his aides to draw on his “immense power” to secure the last few votes preserves him from saintliness. Above all, “Lincoln” is a movie about politics in action.

At its heart is Day-Lewis’s understated portrayal of a man who, to use Winston Churchill’s phrase, recognized that he was “walking with destiny” and has become harrowed and lugubrious in that knowledge. Solemn yet capable of telling earthy stories, weary yet capable of dishing out authoritarian thunderclaps to his team, this gaunt, stooped backwoods lawyer is Hollywood’s definitive American President – not to downplay the skill with which Bill Murray renders FDR in the season’s other presidential movie, “Hyde Park on Hudson.” Watching Day-Lewis’s Abe makes one wonder how the current GOP can possibly call itself “the party of Lincoln.”

Image: Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln”/Film Frame – © 2012 – DreamWorks II Distribution Co.

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