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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience. MOBILE: |
. "Lincoln"

It takes all kinds of chutzpah to tackle an epic story about an icon as large as Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States. But, chutzpah is what Hollywood is all about, and director Steven Spielberg is no wilting flower when it comes to tackling big issues and iconic figures.

To great advantage, he hired screenwriter Tony Kushner who had been working on the Lincoln story for six years. Wisely, the creative team decided not to tackle the entire presidency but to focus on just one slice of his time in office for adaptation from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book on Lincoln's presidency, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."

The grand man -- breathed to life by one of the most gifted actors in the world, Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood") -- is, as the country is engaged with the south in the bloody Civil War with the Confederate states, equally engaged with the House of Representatives in trying to get the Thirteenth amendment passed. Which is the essential drama of the movie.

That amendment means nothing less than abolition -- the recognition that all men are created equal. It meant the end of slavery, and it was a Herculean task to somehow pull together enough votes in a mostly hostile congress divided along partisan lines. Kushner's screenplay brings out Lincoln's courage and tenacity against odds similar to a mule running in a horserace. Lincoln was a seer, one who saw destiny and history as being in his and the country's hands at a time when the impossible could be overcome. You can't but be impressed with Lincoln's sense of timing.

What Spielberg, Kushner and an accomplished cast has produced is some of the history which explains just part of the reasons for the reverence in which this republican president is held, far out of the realm of partisanship but quite close to the aspirations and dreams of those who were most impacted by his revolutionary ideas in a country that had never lived up to its own Declaration of Independence.

While Lincoln was busy cajoling, coercing and pressuring representatives who were in opposition to the amendment for a variety of reasons but who, in Lincoln's incisive and grandfatherly political judgement might be swayable (actions that keenly suggest his patience and persistence), the war is referenced throughout but with a miminum of visual representation. We see the generals, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee, and their immediate entourage and a few aftermath scenes of battles; we see how it becomes a political weight on the abolition issue, but little else.

The third part of the Lincoln saga depicted here, which is gone into rather deeply and to my tastes to the detriment of the whole, is his private life. The political developments concerning the constitutional amendment are intercut with scenes of him with wife Mary Todd; Mary's 12-year old son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), the Lincolns' trauma and emotional turmoil over their firstborn's death, and the drama of his elder son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who feels the call of duty despite his father's determination to keep him away from combat and safe from harm.

In a film of 150 minutes, I feel certain I would have been more impressed had many of these scenes never seen the light of a projector or, at least, not to such an extent. In terms of writing construction, of course, you need relief from the dominant issue, especially when too much of it will play as dry and bewildering to some audiences. I would have argued instead for more on the concurrent status of the war and its geographic progression to relieve the collective stuffiness of a Congressional debate. But I wasn't consulted on this and the filmmakers made their choices -- to my mind, one wrong one.

The cast is one of high capability -- sometimes great. Day-Lewis is, of course, the master at the center. Between his deft skill of interpretation and the writer's dialogue, he humanizes Lincoln in a satisfying and complete way while retaining, if not enhancing, the dignity and bearing of the man he embodies. He recites speeches, aphorisms, principles, quotations and convictions with anything from fiery eloquence to a naturalistic, down-home comfort level as the moment calls for it.

He is the leader for all, even for self-important lawmakers with whom the Congress of the United States is often encumbered. If this portrayal is only partially true of the real man, we can be sure that Lincoln was in possession of a great deal of wit, a sense of irony, and an ability to control a room with any verbal weapon of his choice or instinct from an extensive arsenal.

Such isn't true for his erratically emotional soulmate, evinced by Field in sequences that don't play very well.

Members of the House and other political movers bring on a cadre of distinguished actors. David Strathairn as the near-indispensable, always faithful Secretary of State William Seward; Hal Holbrook as the influential Francis Preston Blair (think Blair House in DC) who made an effort to arrange a peace agreement between the Union and the Confederacy before the final surrender; Bruce McGill as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Jared Harris takes on the brief role of successful Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant who commanded the Union Army from March of 1864; while Christopher Boyer plays the briefer role of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

In less exalted roles, James Spader playes W.N. Bilbo; John Hawkes is Robert Latham, Jackie Earle Haley is Confederate States VP Alexander Stephens and Tim Blake Nelson as Richard Schell. "Justified's" Walton Goggins takes an indecisive characterization in playing the insecure congressman Wells A. Hutchins who broke with his party to vote with Lincoln. Gloria Reuben and a few other black actors represent maids, servants and White House staff who had more on the line over this vote than any of their bosses who were pushing for their liberties.

But, when it comes to being impressed by a singular figure, the standout for me is Tommy Lee Jones in all his nasty disposition as Radical Republican politician extraordinaire Thadeus Stevens, (I thought of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson from 1949 to 1961) on whose arguments the final vote would rise or fall, so powerful was his political skill and influence. Jones' timing is a pleasure to behold as he conveys this gentleman, and a Best Supporting Oscar nod might well be his this year for his work and personality here.

Filming was done in Virginia. Which brings up the camerawork of the great Janusz Kaminski, one of my favorites. He worked with Spielberg masterfully on "War Horse," a film whose best part was the cinematography. This is a lot less, than his best work but the blame doesn't rest on his very able shoulders. Going dark was, no doubt, a decision to emulate interior lighting of the time. I'm not, however, a fan of rendering half a person's face as completely black. Others are likely to heap praise upon the visuals as brilliant source lighting. I just happen to be in a different aesthetic camp regarding the extent of underlighting. This looked more like a Clint Eastwood movie than a Spielberg, though it was the latter who probably called for it.

No one, of course will have a negative word for John Williams' music, which is elegiac, folksy, inspired, compassionate, patriotic, contemplative and artful in proper measure.

Kushner injects parallels into the partisan debates of 1868 that we well recognize in terms of Washington politics of our own time. They draw a laugh or two as the inference is made about the hectic nature of democracy and politicians over time whether the issue is important enough to change the Constitution or not. To the new generations who pay little attention to politics and haven't a clue to what's going on in the world, much less in Washington, this will have some effect as a history lesson.

Arguably, movies are the single most effective launch mechanism for the history of our nation. It's too much to hope the effect will be widespread, and "Lincoln" isn't likely to break attendance records, but if it brings new ideas and explanations to a generally non-inquisitive or aware public, the film is as much a thing of teaching value. It's an exquisitely wrought dramatization about a president who is the gold standard to the greatest number of Americans.

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                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  
[Note for those who wonder how Lincoln got his Emancipation Proclamation passed against the odds in congress -- not unsimilar to problems Obama and the dems are experiencing these days. It was possible because it did NOT free all slaves. The ONLY reason it passed is because it applied only to the slaves of the Confederacy with whom the Union was at war. Obviously, therefore, it had no real effect... until later, after the Union won, when it was made to apply to the entire country and ended legal slavery . All of which is a little known fact and ignored by Spielberg (unless I missed the point in the rapid dialogue).]

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Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln
Awaiting congress's vote on the Emancipation Proclamation.

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