November 29, 2012

MOVIES: Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Lincoln makes the wise choice to focus on one specific incident, rather than give us the full life. Our focus is January 1865, and Lincoln's attempt to get the 13th Amendment, which would ban slavery, passed by the House of Representatives.

Daniel Day-Lewis is not one of my favorite actors. I often find him terribly wooden, but his performance here is marvelous, and his face more expressive than I remember it ever being. He handles the period-ish dialogue (by Tony Kushner) very well; a monologue in which he explains his legal dilemma to his cabinet is particularly nicely done.

He's surrounded by a fine array of character actors -- if he's a 40ish/50ish "Hey, It's That Guy", he's probably in this movie -- the most prominent of which is Tommy Lee Jones as the House's most vocal abolitionist. There are equally fine performances, large and small, from David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward; David Costabile as Stevens's chief lieutenant; Lee Pace as the leader of the anti-amendment forces; and in the closest thing the movie has to comic relief, James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson as a Huey, Dewey, and Louie trio of proto-lobbyists who have been tasked by Lincoln with securing sufficient Democratic votes to pass the amendment.

You know you have an embarrassment of acting riches when Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris, and Dakin Matthews are afterthoughts. And in one of the few female roles, S. Epatha Merkerson only has one scene, and isn't asked to do much more than read the text of the amendment, but she manages to make that a remarkably moving moment.

Not all of the performances work. I can understand why the inherent neediness of Sally Field would make her seem a good choice to play the emotionally vulnerable Mary Todd Lincoln, but her performance is a bit too "May I have another Oscar, please?" for my taste. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn't terrible, but he isn't given anything interesting to do as the Lincolns' oldest son.

Worst thing in the movie is John Williams' faux-Copland score, which trowels on the emotion so thickly as to relieve the viewer from any responsibility to ever have his own actual response. And the coda in which we leap forward to Lincoln's assassination was unnecessary, and filmed in a way that I thought tastefully exploited the grief of a child.

But for a movie which is devoted to the political minutiae of getting a bill passed, Lincoln is surprisingly involving, and the two and a half hours pass quickly.

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