“Lincoln”: a Multi-Purpose Crossover of History, Morality, and All-Star House Party

Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"Despite a few dissidents who wished for something more, Stephen Spielberg’s new film Lincoln has received a host of rave reviews and much name-checking in articles about Academy Award predictions. The film aims to operate numerous levels, which may or may not work depending on what set of preconceptions and expectations you hope to see fulfilled:

* Historical drama: Based on the nonfiction book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the script by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner (Angels in America) is a meticulous chronology of January-April 1865, when our beleaguered sixteenth President sought to end the Civil War and legislate abolition, but struggled through his negotiations with Congress to ensure that each occurred in the correct order, lest one set of dominoes send the other sprawling into chaos. Dozens of historical figures vie for screen time and take turns having their shared moment with either Lincoln or his henchmen. The result is a lot of nineteenth-century trivia compacted into a series of staged conversations, some of which are drier than others. Chances are, though, very few viewers will be able to say they’ve heard all of this before.

* Another startling Daniel Day-Lewis transformation: One can usually depend on the celebrated Oscar-nom-hog to deliver unforgettable Method performances in his films, most recently the spellbinding There Will Be Blood, and certainly strikes a commanding presence here, even during moments of down-home Midwest humility. Gravelly, congenial, firm, and capable of speechifying any oratorical opponent into abject surrender, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln sports a folksy facade that belies a leader who knows what he wants for the sake of the needs of others, and is tired of waiting and fighting for it. He has chinks in his armor, same as any subject of a modern cinematic biography, but it makes one jealous of a bygone era when a politician could be clever and altruistic at the same time.

* Message movie about the perils of partisanship: The crux of the narrative is the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which Lincoln views as an imperative reward for those nearly 200,000 ex-slaves who fought in the Civil War and in his opinion deserved a better postbellum fate than returning to their shackles and chains. This objective required the continuing cooperation of not only Lincoln’s own Republican party, but also at least a few Democrats. Everyone had their own agendas and prejudices to overcome, and not everyone saw abolition as necessary. Lincoln and his cohorts negotiate, wheedle, beg, risk life and limb, and even resort to the occasional “lawyer’s dodge” to recruit enough support to ramrod the amendment through all the stonewalling. The moral of the story for today’s politicians: See, party lines can be crossed! Wouldn’t it be great if this happened more often? Preferably without chicanery?

* Message movie about everything equality: This goes without saying. Here it is anyway. The chief figurehead for this aspect of the film is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican who was most vociferous in championing the amendment on the basis of mere anti-racism. As portrayed by the no-nonsense Mr. Jones in one of his most boisterous roles in years, woe betide any feeble-minded fool who dared hinder his crusade. Anyone who wants to keep oppressing blacks has to go through him. Good luck with that.

* All-star house party!: Lincoln either had a tremendous casting budget or a long line of volunteers willing to pledge their talents wholesale. My wife and I usually enjoy seeing how many supporting and/or character actors we recognize when we watch something together, but so many recognizable faces turned Lincoln into an overloaded picture puzzle in which every inch of the puzzle contains a correct answer. Other than Day-Lewis and Jones, we also recognized:

— Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, all too aware that she’s not quite well, especially after the death of one of her precious children. She and Day-Lewis have a bittersweet chemistry of their own, but her shared scene of hostessing awkwardness with Mr. Jones was a particular highlight.
— Joseph Gordon-Levitt, this year’s It Boy, as Lincoln’s oldest son, chafing in his assigned position in society.
— David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, who does his best to keep Lincoln in check for his own good.
— The icky James Spader, the off-kilter Tim Blake Nelson, and Winter’s Bone‘s John Hawkes as the trio of headhunters hired by the White House to go forth and make abolitionists of at least a dozen Democrats.
— Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach) as Vice-President of the CSA, off-guard and forced into an untenable position.
— Jared Harris, formerly of Mad Men and Fringe, trying out a decidely non-British accent on, of all things, General Ulysses S. Grant.
— Lee Pace (Ned the Piemaker!) as the Congressman who leads the case against abolition and bears a distracting resemblance to Steve Coogan.
— Gloria Reuben (TV’s ER), S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order, but forever Reba the Mail Lady to me), and Julie White (Transformers, Go On) in tiny but crucial roles, representing for the oppressed and/or counterbalancing the cast’s white male majority.
— Former child star Lukas Haas and rising teen star Dane DeHaan (Andrew from Chronicle!), impossible to miss as a pair of starstruck young’uns trying to show off their mnemonic skills.
— Other assorted politicians played by the venerable Hal Holbrook, Bruce McGill (The Last Boy Scout), Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Men in Black III), Walton Goggins (The Shield, Predators), and, to my delight, Boris McGiver — that despicable Marimow from season four of The Wire! — as one of the few Congressmen possessed of an ethnic, non-American accent.

…and those were just the people we knew before I went anywhere near the IMDB entry. It was difficult to immerse myself in the experience when I was interrupted so many times by the commanding sensation of “HEY, LOOK! IT’S THAT ONE GUY!” It was almost as bad as the two cell phone users who let their addiction disrupt the theater at different times, and who I sincerely wish had stayed home and waited for the DVD.

* The power of incessant storytelling: Lincoln wins every other scene by subduing the other guy with an inscrutable parable, a winsome anecdote, or in one instance a tasteless joke. For the right speaker, a story can be the most powerful weapon in your debate arsenal. Witness one scene where a detractor actually exits the scene because he can’t stand to hear Lincoln tell one more blasted story. It really works!

* C-SPAN: the Movie: Today’s American government wishes it could behave like an ill-mannered daytime talk show. Back in Lincoln’s day, that was apparently the norm. Men of stature shouted, belittled, and berated whoever and whenever they wanted, as long as they had their say. The two sides here stop just short of chair-throwing, but you can just tell they’d love to go for it.

* Saving Private Ryan: Episode 1 — The Abolition Menace: If all else fails, you can pretend it’s a part of a prequel trilogy, meant to be grouped with War Horse as Episode 3, and some as-yet-nonexistent Episode 2 about the Spanish-American War to bridge the gap and lead into Spielberg’s best war film to date. Just as the original Ryan kicked off with the most harrowing twenty-five-minute onslaught I’ve ever witnessed in a theater, so does Lincoln start with a few memorable minutes of wartime, intentionally staged as thuggish, awkward, and generally uncomfortable to watch, as a writhing mass of North and South all wrestle, box, stumble, and bayonet each other in close quarters. Disturbing though it was, I began wishing for an encore when the blustery filibustering began to drag in parts.

* Oscar bait: Again, goes without saying, but expect Spielberg and a few cast members to join the Oscar-nom role call next February. It helps that Lincoln dials down the school-filmstrip earnestness that made War Horse more of a history assignment than a visual epic.

For the curious: there’s no scene after the end credits, but if you stick around long enough, you’ll see a staggering list of special-thanks credits for the veritable army of historical organizations, archives, and other resources who consulted or otherwise rendered services unto Lincoln. That metric ton of thankfulness might explain why this was released around Thanksgiving — no other holiday could’ve hoped to contain it.

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