Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Love: Lincoln

Is Lincoln an important film, or has it merely wrapped itself in the trappings of an important film? Steven Spielberg has returned to the historical drama yet again, this time casting Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role and thereby insuring himself at least three spaces on your annual Oscar ballot.  Of course, that's before you count the inevitable nominations of the Academy beloved Sally Field in her supporting role as Mary Todd, a nod to the art direction, and a definite acknowledgment of the elaborate period costumes. *Poof* we're  up to six before we're even out the gate.  Lincoln is a film with a pedigree, a political yarn timed perfectly to arrive in the wake of election mania, and, on paper, Oscar bait in the extreme. Harvey Weinstein probably lies awake at night wishing Lincoln had come out of his house, yet, for all the signals and signs, the question is: is it actually any good?
Ostensibly, the simple answer is yes. Lincoln is a neatly groomed bit of Civil War cinema that manages to be grittier than expected while still keeping its Spielbergian corners tucked safely in.  It's a good film with a better cast, and while worlds seem to revolve around the bureaucratic dealings of Abraham Lincoln, a better title for this might have been "The 13th Amendment," as the real battles are fought by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) in the House of Representatives.  This is no biopic, but is instead a slice of carefully chosen time marking the dawn of the president's second term in office to the moment of his untimely assassination.  It's roughly a year in the life, and it's a strange, heavy year of backhanded political deals, massive human rights issues, bloodshed, and big questions as to just when dubious, ethically unsound behaviors may become justifiable.
What I liked most about Lincoln was that it took the events of history to heart.  Watching it felt like a indulging in a well-balanced history lesson, and the film never seemed to resort to painting the beloved president as the sole redeemer of this remarkable and vital piece of legislation. Spielberg takes the time to build up Stevens, to show us the snapping congressional debates between the Republican abolitionists and the stubbornly pro-slavery democrats.  They're the big talkers, the outgoing personalities, the loudmouths of the movie. When we spend time with Lincoln, he's remarkably human, often to the point of frailty. Day-Lewis' portrayal is one of a man weary and broken. His shoulders hunch under the weight of the loss of a son and the constant reminder of his country's unrest. He's quiet and humble, content to sit back and think on something before leaping into action.  In other words: he's a far cry from the character intensity we're accustomed to seeing from the man who was Daniel Plainview.  The performance is one of the many ways the movie seems to actively undermine our expectations. It's resisting the "Hollywood" telling at every turn, eschewing dramatization for something lean, muscular, and technically impressive.  Lincoln is a noble film.  And yet...
...I did not love it. Not really. I cannot tell a lie, and as good as all the pieces were, I repeatedly found myself far less interested in the going-ons at the White House than I was in the events of cranky Thaddeus Stevens and the bribery goon squad (John Hawkes, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson).  The film operates so deeply in the melancholy funk of our 16th president that at times it becomes an intellectual waxworks, a museum so bloated with vivid details it forgets to connect the dots towards a stronger narrative arc.  So, like a too heavy meal of rich brain food, the history keeps coming until you find yourself lulled towards sleep.  Or, at least, that's how it worked for me.  I admittedly struggled to stay awake during Lincoln.  It was good, but not great. Masterfully handled but not particularly interesting artistically.  Lincoln is a film generations of high school students will be subjected to during their US History courses. They'll be better for it, I'm sure, but only if they focus on something other than Tommy Lee Jones' wig.

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