AFI DOCS 2014 (Days 3&4)

Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis is the real reason to see Lincoln. He is without doubt the best actor on the planet. He doesn’t act — he becomes. All the portrayals of Lincoln before by many fine actors from Walter Huston to Henry Fonda to Brendan Fraser pale in comparison. And there have been more movies about Lincoln than any other President for good reason. He was a fascinating man in command at one of our country’s darkest times, and he was a masterful politician in every way. No wonder Spielberg decided to take a whack at telling it again. And he was smart not to do the “from the log cabin to the theater” history lesson that we have all seen before.

Spielberg’s Lincoln could’ve just as easily been called “The 13th Amendment”, though I am sure the marketing department would’ve balked at that. The story is only a snippet of Lincoln’s history, during the last year of his life when the bloody war was still raging, and he was determined to pass the 13th amendment before there was peace, so that the southern states would be forced to end slavery. Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Doris Kearns Goodwin who wrote the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln collaborated on a very intelligent screenplay that gives you a front row seat for some intense political wrangling that will probably remind many viewers of our current dysfunctional Congress, and gives an unvarnished look at what a brilliant political animal Lincoln had to be to get anything done. (Obama hosted a cast and crew screening at the White House a few nights ago. I’d love to hear his take on it.)

Lincoln by this account was a masterful juggler. He had a crazy wife (Sally Field) at home, a son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) aching to join the army, political allies who were pushing for peace even though it would mean the certain defeat of a 13th amendment, and an overwhelming struggle with his own conscience over the idea of delaying peace, knowing that more men would die.

But Lincoln is not entirely political and serious. There are witty moments, mostly when Lincoln is telling one of his stories or in the House chambers as various congressmen insult one another. And there are some teary-eye moments, as well. The acting overall is top notch, though I felt that Daniel Day-Lewis was the only one who really seemed an embodiment of that era. Tommy Lee Jones as the bewigged Thaddeus Stevens may be the only other actor that filled the shoes of his role. And in what is probably the most unexpected character in the movie James Spader’s W.N. Bilbo, the leader of a group of men sent out to “procure” the votes Lincoln needed, is the perfect comic counter-beat. But the film is a bit long at 149 minutes, and it is somewhat slow going in the beginning. And those Spielbergian musical swells that tell you “this is important” are kind of tiresome to me. I am not jumping on the Masterpiece wagon with this one, but I think it is a very good film, mostly for Day-Lewis’s breath-taking performance. It isn’t a film for youngsters, nor for people who don’t like listening to speechifying. But for history buffs, lovers of incredible acting and people who want to go to a movie that makes you think, I would definitely recommend it.

1 Comments

  1. Mainstream Chick, November 17, 2012:

    Okay, so here’s the deal. I will always pick a good musical over a good play. And watching “Lincoln”, for me, was like watching a play. An excellent play, of course, given the talent of scriptwriter/playwright Tony Kushner, but a play none-the-less. So it took me quite a while to really get into this movie. The first hour+ felt downright boring, despite the stellar acting. I perked up for the second half, thanks to the building sense that history really was in the making – and the stellar acting. And have I mentioned the stellar acting? Daniel Day-Lewis channels Lincoln brilliantly and is probably a shoe-in (and a very big shoe it is) for the Best Actor Oscar. The supporting roles – played by some of the best character actors around – are all excellent and bring a bit of levity and a lot of gravitas to the story. Including Sally Field, Joseph Gordon Levitt (a welcome addition to any movie, although he’s only in this one briefly), James Spader, and best of all here, Tommy Lee Jones. I’m guessing Jones will be right up there for a best supporting actor nod. Bottom line: this movie will thrill history and political buffs, people who like a good play, and folks who like to jump on the ‘Spielberg masterpiece’ bandwagon. I LOVED the performances but only LIKED the movie. (i.e. I wouldn’t give it Best Picture over “Argo”) It’s worth seeing, but at 2 1/2 hours long, I suggest you avoid the late showings or you may not wake up in time to enjoy the back half. Now where can I pick up a re-elect Lincoln bumper sticker?

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