Thursday, December 6, 2012
The Truth Will Set You Free
I must start by confessing (again) that I have a near-love affair with Abraham Lincoln. After happening upon a collection of speeches and writings of and about Lincoln over 20 years ago, I have been on a mission to read any substantial work about the man that I run across. One of the best recent books has been Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005). I read this a couple of years after it came out, and it really tells the most fascinating story. (I cover the story--and gush and gush about Lincoln--in this linked review, so I'll leave those observations mostly alone here.)
Goodwin's book is the source material for Steven Spielberg's new film Lincoln. The film explores the singular character of our sixteenth President as revealed by his interactions with key members of his cabinet and other prominent politicians. The Civil War is of course the setting for these interactions, and the story specifically tells of Lincoln's deliberations about, and push to enact, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery. (For those who dread three hours of the uncomfortable issue of slavery, fear not: the film spends little time on the topic, even if we see much of the deadly passions attached to it.)
So much of Lincoln's genius found an expression verbally, and he lives on for us in his speeches and writings and in the written recollections of others. Doris Kearns Goodwin's approach was to reconstruct these momentous events from the usual source documents, but also from the letters and speeches of more peripheral figures. So the script for Spielberg's film has a tall order, having to boil down from a zillion disparate sources two and a half ours of the really essential stuff. This task falls to Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner, and he gets his gold star. Kushner finds the right balance of the big, inevitable things and the intimate and personal.
Spielberg has cast fabulously. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln, and Sally Field his high-strung wife Mary Todd. David Strathairn is Secretary of State William H. Seward, Tommy Lee Jones the ultra-Republican partisan and Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens (this is a time when Republicans stood for almost the polar opposite of what they represent today). Rounding out the central cast are Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, Jack Earl Haley. And there are a zillion other parts, all wonderfully cast.
This being a Spielberg film, the production has a very slick, high-dollar feel, the polar opposite of, say, a gritty documentary. John Williams provides an epic score--yet another for his thick portfolio--and if I find anything to criticize it is a sense of creeping over-production when the story to my mind needs no augmentation. I rankle at most Big Movie Music anyway, but it's especially cloying here. Swelling music at big moments feels especially manipulative and dishonest--and just seems unnecessary. Scenes feel a mite too pat at times and are often lit with a touch too much self-consciousness and drama. It's maybe too much Hollywood (though not so bad as his Gangs Of New York).
But don't let's go very far with this. The strength of the story overwhelms all. In addition to the simply unfathomable and miraculous character of Lincoln himself (which is probably never better shown to us than by a capable actor becoming and demonstrating that character in front of us), the story is larger than life in most every particular. And all is played out with the biggest, most colorful characters in circumstances where everything is to play for. Life and death and suffering and heroism and sacrifice, deep and unshakeable love and irreconcilable hatred; stories just don't get better than this.
But back to Lincoln himself. Daniel Day-Lewis is instantly recognizable as Lincoln, so much so that I can't quite remember what the real Day-Lewis looks like (I wonder if any prosthetics were used?). The trailers intrigue us with a voice that seems wrong--high and squeaky and inflected when we expect low and stentorian and phlegmatic; but I recall sources saying that Lincoln's speaking voice was a high, reedy tenor. It was not a great public speaking voice. I daresay that Day-Lewis will have changed our mental picture of what Lincoln sounds like, which seems no small accomplishment. I've long had my suspicions about Daniel Day-Lewis's Method Acting. Too many stories of him staying in accent or period dress or mimicking a physical disability--for months at a time--lead me to think of him as a tiresome pill. But I just have to shut the hell up when I watch the result. After thousands of pages about Lincoln, it's terribly moving to meet this man on the screen.
And if none of the other characters on screen are quite so magnetic (though Sally Field's Mary Todd Lincoln is as formidable and nuanced and un-pigeon-holeable as one could want), they are still a treat just the same. Tommy Lee Jones's Thaddeus Stevens is a constant surprise, and Hal Holbrook (Francis Preston Blair) is hard to take one's eyes off of. Time and attention has been paid to recreate the period, though, again, in a fairly Hollywood manner. But it works.
This is one of the key events in the short history of our country, and it's presented to us here via the very best of a certain style of storytelling. Personally, I will encounter Lincoln by whatever path is available. Recommended.