ADVANCE MOVIE REVIEW: Lincoln

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LINCOLN-- 5 STARS

For the most part, when Hollywood puts a United States President, either real or fictitious, on the silver screen, they intend for it to be over-the-top.  In Hollywood movie presidency, no one gets elected or gains office for subtlety.  Hell, outside of Tinseltown, we, the American people, have even elected a former Hollywood actor to be the President of the United States or do the young whipper-snappers not remember that history of Ronald Reagan?  Lately (since likely Reagan or Kennedy), because the real thing is normally a scripted and/or diluted politician, the public clamors for their movie Presidents to be bombastic, speechifying, soaring, and square-jawed figures to get behind when times are tough and asses need kicking.  When you want an alien invasion thwarted do you want George W. or President "Lonestarr" Bill Pullman from Independence Day?  Could you even picture Bill Clinton uttering the Harrison Ford growl of "Get off my plane!" from Air Force One?  Hell no for both questions!  Thank you very much, Hollywood.

Even in the few times that Hollywood has bucked that trend and skewed to the calm leader of words and strength, like Morgan Freeman's assuaging presence in Deep Impact, it's the rest of the movie that has to be over-the-top to make up for the President.  Furthermore, even when the President is a romantic character, as Michael Douglas was in The American President (or worse, Kevin Kline in Dave), he still had to be a firecracker-on-call or the butt of his own joke.  The parodies of Peter Sellars from Dr. Strangelove and Jack Nicholson from Mars Attacks! are on another plane of ridiculous President portrayals in movies.  For my 10 best movie Presidents, head here before we turn our focus to the present masterpiece.

The beauty and brilliance of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and two-time Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis's astonishing portrayal of the title character is in the honesty, humility, and earnestness being committed to portray a U.S. President on the silver screen.  A working man is shown, not a figure posing for history books.  A simple, frank, and understanding kind of man is conveyed, one that is revered and greatly respected for those exact character traits.  The bombastic and argumentative side of shouted political barbs is left to the distinguished and not-so-distinguished representatives on the floor of the U.S. Congress.  With this tone in mind, we are given one of the most quietly rousing movies of patriotism and the Presidency we may ever see.

Working off of just the final few months of Lincoln's life and citing the novel Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin as its source material, renowned playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner aims to cover the passage of the historic 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery, the behind-the-scenes politicking for that 2/3 vote in the House of Representatives, the impending ending of the Civil War, and the role the President played in each of those events in and out of the White House.  Of course, any good history student knows how the story will end.  Even with a two-and-a-half hour running time, not a minute feels wasted or underused.  The enormous supporting cast of players populate and spread out from each story arc.

Championing the passing of the 13th Amendment on the Republican side are radical abolitionist Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones), Secretary of State William Seward (Academy Award nominee David Strathairn), and non-elected politician Francis Blair (Academy Award nominee Hal Holbrook).  Their mouthy opposition is "Copperhead" Democratic Congressman and former mayor of New York City Fernando Wood (Lee Pace).  Stevens is the out-spoken top rooster in the Republican side of the House and wages the required war of words against Wood and the Democrats.  Seward works directly with Lincoln to see his legislation through and questions whether the President can have both the 13th Amendment and the end of the war.  Behind the curtain, Seward enlists a team of scheming and opportunistic lobbyists (hilariously played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) to obtain the necessary aisle-crossing Democratic votes needed to pass the measure.  Meanwhile, Blair also reaches out his Democratic opponents for bi-partisan support while also secretly working with Lincoln to arrange peace discussions with Confederacy leaders, particularly Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), who have come north to Richmond in hopes of getting an audience with Lincoln in Washington.

On the war side of things, Abraham Lincoln collaborates daily in the White House war room and telegraph room with both Seward and his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) and staff.  By wire, he communicates with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) on the front line news and also in receiving Stephens and his Confederate team.  Also at the White House, President Lincoln keeps an open door for citizens.  They line up out the door everyday with the hope to settle issues and receive his wisdom and assistance.  Finally, when the government and war-mongering are put aside, Abraham is a torn family man consoling his unstable grieving wife Mary (two-time Academy Award winner Sally Field), raising his youngest son Tad, and trying to steer his oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from joining the war.  As I will say later in my lessons, burden and composure are understatements.

When I reflect on Lincoln, the top word that comes to mind is "earnest."  Spielberg, his cast, and his crew set out to tell a piece of history with wholehearted purpose and never wavered.  They weren't swinging for the box office fences to hit some grandiose action home run relying on gross dramatization, theatricality, or wild war battles set to a trumpeting score.  This film doesn't have Schindler's List's heart-wrenching horrors orWar Horse's heart-tugging melodrama.  Spielberg and Kushner's goal is clearly respectful observance.

With a constant eye for the conflicts and importance of matters away from the battlefields, all involved put their heartfelt passion in the right place.  History remembers that some of the most important measures that brought about the outcome of the Civil War came from words, voting, and paper instead of muskets, cannons, and bayonets.  The final product of Lincoln keeps things grounded and rooted in just that sort of history.  The acting is sincere and noble.  Legendary composer John Williams's piano-driven score stays in the background and never calls for thunder.  The humor is eager and welcome.  The quaint allegories and stories by Lincoln himself, through the mouthpiece of Daniel Day-Lewis, wash over you, the audience, just as they did to his historic constituents and followers long ago.

The technical expertise of any Steven Spielberg film is almost a given, but the attention to detail here is still worth noting.  Not one Joanna Johnston costume is out of place or purpose.  Not one Rick Carter set production lacks lived-in period detail or personal touch.  Not one Janusz Kaminski camera shot forgets to capture the candlelight of the day, the bleak hues of war, or the underlying twinkle of the moment at hand.  Steven and his dependable team have fleshed out one of the finest historical dramas put to film in this generation.  

Volumes could be shared on the ensemble acting on display in Lincoln.  Steady veterans like Strathairn, Holbrook, McGill, Harris, and Haley all melt into their roles with ease and expertise.  With extremely impressive emotion and poise, Sally Field has her best role in decades and offers exponentially more than what was given to her as Aunt May earlier this summer in The Amazing Spider-Man.  She's a shoe-in, if not the outright leader for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.  I'm sure Helen Hunt, Laura Linney, Helen Mirren, and Amy Adams will be just a few of the ladies with something to say about that before it's all said and done. 

If you're like me, you will highly enjoy the humor brought by the slippery trio of hustlers played by Spader, Hawkes, and Nelson.  They are a nice change of pace from the proper politicking delivered by other members of the cast.  In a 150 minute historical drama, you need a little break and they are great fun.  Speaking of pace, TV star Lee Pace has a nice minor villain part, but unfortunately has the unenviable task of being in opposition to Tommy Lee Jones.

After a nice year cashing a paycheck in Men in Black 3 and successfully showing surprising romantic comedy range in Hope Springs, Jones caps his year with nothing short of an Oscar-worthy supporting performance as the steadfast hero of the Congressional battle theater.  His character's denouement might just out-shine Lincoln's famous fate.  He will face tough competition in February from the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman from The Master and the men of Argo.  If there is one underused asset it's unfortunately Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Outside of one great scene with Daniel Day-Lewis outside of an army hospital, he's little more than a sideline character.  Still, I can't call that a big loss.

Finally, the momentum that makes the entire film work comes from Daniel Day-Lewis's lead performance.  In a role that was earmarked to Spielberg's Schindler's List lead Liam Neeson for the better part of two decades, the Method actor and two-time Oscar winner immerses himself into his art and craft as few actors can even comprehend.  While I may have written initial regret back in January at the recent trend of British actors playing American heroes (Abraham Lincoln, Batman, Superman), I truly cannot picture another actor performing and portraying this revered historic leader with the same care, performance, and appreciation put forth by Day-Lewis.  

As you will read in my lessons, Daniel Day-Lewis creates a tone of voice and storytelling personality that conveys Lincoln's famous plain manner of speaking.  When he has to raise that level up to speak to the masses or announce a more profound point, no tone or importance is lost.  I don't think we would have gotten that level of connection and performance from the growling hulk of Mr. Taken, Liam Neeson.  The difference-making degree that puts Daniel Day-Lewis ahead of anyone else who could have played this role is how he portrays Lincoln as a husband and father in private, away from the story-telling and leadership audiences.  That's where he elevates himself above all of the rest.  To this reviewer, just hand him the Academy Award for Best Actor now.  Go ahead and send Joaquin Phoenix, Denzel Washington, Bill Murray, Bradley Cooper, and Ben Affleck home now.

LESSON #1: THERE'S BILL CLINTON "FOLKSY" AND THEN THERE'S ABRAHAM LINCOLN "FOLKSY"-- I couldn't help but watch Daniel Day-Lewis deliver his Lincoln allegories, parables, and storytelling without thinking of the rave reviews former President Bill Clinton always gets when he speechifies, particularly at the recent 2012 Democratic National Convention.   Simply put, the general public will take identifiable stories over foreboding rhetoric.  They will trust a plain, down-home matter of speaking over sophisticated snobbery.  Abraham Lincoln was a master at making the dramatic, sorrowful, distressing, and morose sound strengthening, earnest, and powerful while barely raising his voice.  The man had a brilliant gift with storytelling, allegory, words, connection, and conversation.

LESSON #2: THE BURDEN OF THE PRESIDENCY-- Today's prying TV reporters and gossip magazines love pointing out how old the young, energetic, and spry Barack Obama has appeared to age in just four years on the job as President of the United States.  Just imagine doing that same job without today's technology and communication, with an enraged Congress controlling the fate of millions of enslaved people, and during a civil war that has divided the country and killed over 600,000 Americans.  Then, add losing one young child to death and another to prospect of military service in that aforementioned bloody war, all while dealing with a grieving wife every step of the way.  Burden is an understatement.  Composure is another understatement to what Abraham Lincoln went through in his final months of life.  For all of the White House dinners, PR moments, and talk shows, there is no tougher job in the world than being President of the United States.

LESSON #3: THE PRICELESS VALUE OF SELF-EVIDENT TRUTHS-- Here's the big one.  In watching Spielberg's rehash of history surrounding the end of the Civil War, the passing of the 13th Amendment, and the great leader that ushered the country through this time, we get to bear witness to some of the country's founding principles bubbling up to the surface through bloodshed and political challenge.  Lincoln speaks highly of self-evident truths.  One online dictionary define a self-evident truth as "an assumption that is basic to an argument" and "a hypothesis that is taken for granted."  We bear witness in this film and the history it depicts to justice, fairness, and equality all being self-evident truths.  As any good American or student knows, "all men are created equal" is the one that gets the ball rolling, stemming right into the "unalienable rights" of life , liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  When the minutia of racism, debate, hate, stereotypes, passion and/or differences cloud a topic, it becomes an unfair mistake and disservice to forget ideals that we take as self-evident truths.