Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Lincoln" Perks

     Lights rise on the nation's sixteenth President sitting and speaking with two black soldiers.  He asks them questions in a tone that is patient, kind, and just a little paternal.  One soldier is shamelessly servile, almost pandering in a way that irritated one friend of mine, making him feel as if his race was represented as being too worshipful of Lincoln.  The other soldier, though, was hard on the president, asking him difficult questions, many that Abe was unprepared to answer without more thought.  Two white soldiers march up and seem a little dismissive of their "compatriots of color" (if you will).  Lincoln asks the new arrivals if they can recite what he said at Gettysburg and the boys try to stumble through it, but Lincoln ends up having to help them with the first few lines before sending everyone on their way.  As the soldier's walk off, the one who had given Lincoln a hard time can be heard finishing the speech, effortlessly and word for word.  It is obvious that while he continues to hold the President accountable for upholding them, the words themselves he holds in a certain reverence.  So begins Lincoln, setting the tone for all that is to follow.  It is a film that is full of big ideas, and gives you much to ponder.  It avoids becoming TOO ponderous, however, because it is also a movie with a big heart, kept under tight wraps, but leaking little golden veins of sentimentality.
     The intellectual meat of the picture (and there is a lot, questions in conundrums in ethical puzzles) must undeniably be accredited to screenwriter Tony Kushner's rather inspired script.  This is only Mr. Kushner's second screenplay (he also collaborated with Spielberg on Munich), but he was already well known as a playwright because of the two Angels in America plays (which are amazing, maybe I'll review the excellent HBO adaptation in a later article).  Here he tells a story of great men, fighting battles of great import, but without cleaning it all up to make it more palatable.  It feels more history than mythology in a way that movies about beloved historical figures rarely do.  This was a man who had to compromise and had to occasionally bend his own ethical principals in a microcosmic manner to maintain the path to his goal in the bigger picture.  Lincoln is a pensive, talky film, but one that has worthwhile things to say.
     Steven Spielberg works best when his tone is respectable but flirting with cheese.  Sometimes he flirts heavily (Raiders, ET), sometimes he's a little more subtle (Close Encounters, Saving Private Ryan) and every great once in a while he's able to keep his heart in check enough to be really, really coy about it (Schindler's List, and now Lincoln).  Spielberg is like a great conductor here.  He assembled the best orchestral team you could ask for, was given a great composition to lead them through and then weaves the sounds together like the seasoned master that he is when at his best.
     It is almost a given at this point that Daniel Day-Lewis is going to win an Oscar for Lincoln.  Loathe as I am to go along with awards that were practically bestowed months ahead of time based on "brand name" alone, I have to admit that he's one of the favored contenders in The Froggies when I get to the Best of 2012 series in a couple of months.  It's an amazing performance, in which this true master thespian completely transforms into the man he portrays.  Great attention has obviously been given to every aspect of what he does onscreen:  the accent, the posture, every movement of the muscles around his eyes.  He takes Abraham Lincoln, the most loved and hated American figure of his day, and makes him so affable and funny even among those who despise him.  At the same time you can never look at the man without seeing the weight he feels upon his shoulders and his soul.
     I admit, I am a bit biased in the following assessment.  I love Sally Field.  But I think that if I were entirely objective, I would still love her performance in this picture.  I can think of no other actress better suited for the sort of high melodrama inherent in the character of Mary Todd Lincoln.  Her Mary is a woman of such simultaneous fragility and strength that she seems almost surreal, but you absolutely believe in her.  There is this one party scene where her and Tommy Lee Jones go at it that is one of the real high lights of the film for me.
     Speaking of Mr. Jones, he is having a great year.  He may have gotten famous for playing tough guys, but it is films like No Country For Old Men, Hope Springs, and now Lincoln in which he really shines, playing tough guys who are only tough because they must be to protect their more tender, secret hearts.  I really think that his work in those three films may be his best ever for me.  This actor is proving to be like a fine wine, and he excels in roles that require wisdom and maturity.  His portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens boasts plenty of both.
     In a year of impressive ensemble pieces, Lincoln is easily among the best.  David Strathairn is marvelously officious.  James Spader makes incredibly good use of his screen time as a despicable fellow working for the good guys, partnered ably by John Hawkes.  Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Walton Goggins...I could go on.  I do feel that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's role as Lincoln's son was less well developed than he could have been.  Only in his scenes do I feel as if the drama gets a little less restrained.  I wouldn't call his work weak, but it is one of the film's aspects that bears the least strength.
   The production team on Lincoln did a fantastic job.  All elements are impressive to the active observer, yet far from obtrusive to the passive one.  The picture received six craft nods, and Joanna Johnston (Costume Design), Michael Kahn (Editing), John Williams (Score), Rick Carter (Production Design) & Jim Erickson (Set Decoration, also covered under the Production Design nomination) and the Sound Mixing team of Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom & Ronald Judkins all made award worthy contributions to this film.  I'm still confounded that the excellent make-up work went unrewarded.
     What really blew me away unexpectedly was the work of master cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.  I never expected a film that was so packed with scenes of deals being struck in cigar smoke filled back rooms could be the sort of visually stimulating experience that this movie was.  The use of light in Lincoln is brilliant, the use of the shadows that abound in a world where the only light comes from candles, lanterns, and the sun.  Even the aforementioned cigar smoke (as it filters through candlelight and frames the characters hazily) is used in each shot to glorious effect.  There is a dream sequence early on in the picture that may be the most beautiful imagery I have seen on film this year.  This is simply one of the most brilliantly shot films of 2012.  I should never have underestimated it so quickly.
     Which, in truth, is kind of how I feel about the whole project.  I was very, very slow to begin taking Lincoln seriously in this Oscar race.  It never cracked my top ten Best Picture contenders until it previewed to great acclaim.  Even then, it took a long time to creep up that list.  You must forgive me.  War Horse was like the unattractive love child of Shenandoah & Old Yeller by comparison to this piece.    Spielberg has come back with a true vengeance, giving us one of his best, a film that never goes in for the big cry.  Instead it bombards the mind, and then plucks gently at the heartstrings with a surgeon's pinpoint precision. 5 of 5 stars.
Related posts:  The Sound Hope Sparks (Hope Springs review), Oscar Winner Predictions & Buzz: Of Snubs and Triumphs (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing & Sound Mixing), Pretty People Techs (Costume Design & Make-Up and Hairstyling), Pretty Picture Techs (Cinematography & Production Design), Finishing Touch Techs (Editing & Visual Effects)

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