Abraham Lincoln is one of those mythic figures, like Gandhi, El Cid, Che Guevara, Garibaldi, Churchill, Nelson, Washington, Richard the Lionheart, Princess Diana, who have become legends of folklore, legends which usually hide decidedly grubbier and less pleasant realities. However, because of our Human need for heroes to look up to and inspire us, we usually "print the legend" rather than the truth.
Most media representations of "honest Abe" falls into this latter category, as best exemplified in the literal cartoon that was last year's "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter" which brought things into sharper relief by playing it all in deadly earnest. Of course Lincoln lived only a couple of lifetimes at remove from us, so the truth is there, but we choose to ignore it because we want to believe in this great noble hero who "freed the black man" from the sadistic, demonic evil deformed Southerners, as simple a battle between "Good" and "Evil" as the equally misrepresented WWII, a man driven by an all-conquering desire for equality so strong it even has its own stirring accompaniment of tear jerking violins and moving horns wherever it goes! It's a pleasing fantasy, especially for rich white people who like to pat themselves on the back for how noble and good they are, even though it relegates Black people to simpletons, smiling happy children free of any adult sin or virtue, perpetual victims who need nice enlightened white folk to make their destinies for them.
I approached this film with some trepidation; sure that Spielberg the great romantic would give us more of the same and then some. However the film walks a very strange tightrope indeed. Taken from D K Godwin's dry text, it spends a lot of time looking at the political machinations and double dealing that got the 13th amendment (banning slavery) passed, and is a highly instructive lesson about how government and democracy actually works, including bribery corruption and outright lies. In turn it has been adapted by playwright Tony Kusher into what is really a filmed play with little real action and everything confined to a few room like sets where dialogue carries everything. This is all then filmed by Spielberg, who injects the admittedly very restrained production with jarring and intrusive stabs of pure schmaltz, usually whenever the evil of slavery is brought up, or one of the many prominently (and highly anachronistically) positioned Black faces steps to make some clichéd speech. These Spielbergian moments can be easily identified because whenever they appear in between the political machinations and congressional double dealings, John Williams stirring flag waving music strikes up to pull those old heartstrings! (You could almost invent a drinking game around them, one that would probably get you very drunk indeed) So really, it's two very separate movies, the Godwin/Kusher political lesson being the biggest, with the Spielberg schmaltz in support.
To its credit the film looks authentic, including the dim candle and gaslight level lighting which bathes everything in semi darkness, and most of the characters act, speak and think like people from the 1860s rather than people from 2012 in costume (Save for the aforementioned anachronistic Spielbergian romance moments) both of which are very rare in historical film.
This being a stage play in all but name, it is the actors who dominate, and here we have some of the best. Daniel Day Lewis gives us a powerful version of the mythical Lincoln we know and love (rather than the less pleasant real one) with his homespun tales and folksy charm, stirring passion and quiet determination, and he is gifted by an existing physical resemblance. Sally Field creates a powerful character our of Mary Lincoln, the only character to shine a less than positive light on her famous husband, strong willed and frustrated, all too aware of her position as the wife of a legend, a woman who pushes for the 13th largely because it will end the war and keep her son from harm. Tommy Lee Jones incarnates radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, a man too extreme for his time, with the fire of the old TLJ we haven't seen in a while, the brutish, frightening thug like alpha male who can intimidate and crush those beneath him like bugs, the man with the lashing wit and grandiose gestures, and it's nice to see him back again. David Straithern, another powerful presence, plays Lincoln's fixer William Seward. His character is very similar to the one he plays in the "Bourne" series, the intelligent committed patriotic manipulator who uses downright shady and suspect methods for 'the greater good', expect here we are expected to side with him. His chief agent is played with amoral glee by an almost unrecognisable James Spader, bribing dead duck Democrats with lucrative posts for the 'yes' vote in a series of light hearted vignettes. Jason Gordon Levitt appears as Abe's eldest son Robert, determined to enlist against his father's wishes, whom even a gruesome pit full of severed limbs can't fully dissuade. Legendary Hal Holbrook lends gravitas as voice of reason Preston Blair while Jared Harris effectively incarnates another legend, General Ulysses S. Grant for a few vital scenes.
For a Spielberg film about war, there is virtually no action, and those expecting a big spectacular will leave disappointed. This is a history lesson starring famous names written by a playwright adapting a political analyst's dissertation on Congressional politics, directed by the master of romanticism and sentimentality, with a lot of unpleasant truth's airbrushed out and replaced by the legends we would like to believe are actually true in their place. It won't be for all tastes, but it is worth a look for those with a little patience.
Action / Biography / Drama / History / War
Action / Biography / Drama / History / War
In 1865, as the American Civil War winds inexorably toward conclusion, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln endeavors to achieve passage of the landmark constitutional amendment which will forever ban slavery from the United States. However, his task is a race against time, for peace may come at any time, and if it comes before the amendment is passed, the returning southern states will stop it before it can become law. Lincoln must, by almost any means possible, obtain enough votes from a recalcitrant Congress before peace arrives and it is too late. Yet the president is torn, as an early peace would save thousands of lives. As the nation confronts its conscience over the freedom of its entire population, Lincoln faces his own crisis of conscience -- end slavery or end the war.
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March 08, 2013 at 06:58 PM