Thursday, January 3, 2013

Movie Review: Lincoln

Directed by Steven Spielberg. 2012.

Just behind my seat at the 7:10 showing of Lincoln sat a couple. The man, a tall and lanky fellow himself, laughed uproariously at the jokes director Steven Spielberg generously sprinkled throughout his picture. His lady companion, it is safe to say, enjoyed it even more, chortling, sighing, oohing, and ahhing, I kid you not, every other of Lincoln's 150 minutes. The couple exiting down the escalator were surprised how much they liked it given how much talking it contained. I myself left reasonably pleased, and it has been this favorable consensus amongst dissimilar moviegoers that has made Spielberg such a crowd favorite. The consensus among critics owes itself, I think, to that Spielberg specialty of uniting disparate, conventional, and often only moderately well-executed, elements into a palatable whole.

Take the main elements of Lincoln: the president talking politics with various appointees, particularly Secretary of State Seward, the president talking family matters with his wife, a bumbling trio of political lackeys sent by Lincoln to cajole, intimidate, buy, or otherwise persuade congressmen to vote for the 13th Amendment, and congressional debate. Not one of these elements is especially remarkable.

The scenes in congress take up the lion's share of the movie and they'll delight the largest share of Lincoln's viewers with the quick wits and funny faces of the congressmen. Yet these scenes run too long and the center of the movie becomes a 19th century C-SPAN. Spielberg offsets this with the trio of W. N. Bilbo and company running around gaining votes. Such scenes are both entertaining and practical, the now classic Spielbergian ability to move the plot with action. Yet they are overplayed in both quantity and their comic factor to balance out the Congressional scenes which will dull some of the audience. Still, the characters are a hoot and their scenes not only give more detailed looks, however fleeting, at the congressmen, but also move the plot along by showing us the increasing support for the Amendment. Rather impressive in terms of plotting, really.

The scenes between Abraham and Mary Todd, however, are likely the most honest in the film. When he scolds her for indulging her grief for her dead child while he had to forebear, we feel honest and plain pity for the man. This in contrast to the admiration Spielberg tries to coax from us on account of Lincoln's political woes, woes he twice campaigned to undertake. Yet the political scenes are not unmoving and in the most genuine of them Lincoln makes the case for his political maneuvers to his cabinet. With a troubled, weary smile from Daniel Day Lewis' brilliant performance, he refers to those measures as, "not legal but not criminal." Reactions to these scenes and ideas will likely align with reactions to the Lincoln himself.

Another scene reinforces this split. Here Lincoln pauses in his deliberation over whether to tell the Confederate delegates to proceed North to discuss peace, potentially scuttling his Amendment plans, or deliberately to stall them, prolonging the war but winning the Amendment, and he begins to talk to the two telegraph clerks who will send his message. He asks them if they think they are meant to live in their age. Lincoln is of course asking the question of himself, and the director of us. Should we be grateful to, or for, Lincoln? Those generally optimistic about the possibilities of politics, who think big in terms of plans and progress, or who more easily weigh ends and means, will find sympathy with Lincoln for his extraordinary efforts and forgive him his transgressions. Those more skeptical will see an ideologue for one cause who, despite the righteousness of that cause, violated other principles and perhaps broke a system in attempting to fix a problem when and how he saw fit.

Yet such quality, in some cases excellent, elements coalesce in Lincoln by means of cheaper ones such as jokes, quirky characters, and articulate and but incontinent speech. Such is not to say the main plot of Lincoln, the passage of the amendment, is poor. It speeds along for a while but starts to sag about halfway through because we never feel the amendment is truly in jeopardy, and we never feel the amendment is in jeopardy because despite the sour faces and relentless fretting of those around him, Lincoln himself never seems to doubt its passage himself. This certainty robs the film of tension because the opinion of Lincoln and our own hindsight outweigh all of the congressional flapping. Moreover we get the sense that the amendment is inevitable because it is naturally right, reinforcing expectations of its success and diminishing the tension.

In fact after the passage of the amendment, at which most of the tension dissipates, Lincoln starts to fall apart. Despite the fact that the passage of the Amendment in the House (January, 1865), Lee's surrender at the Appomattox courthouse (April 9, 1865), and Lincoln's death (April 15, 1865), occurred near in time, they feel stitched together in the film. We suddenly feel like the director is simply hitting requisite marks and we pause for the credits after every portentous piece of dialogue. Worse, though, are the scenes after his death in which Spielberg flashes back to yet another speech, at which point we feel like we're on a track of Lincoln's Greatest Hits. This conclusion dragged not only interminably but needlessly because Spielberg already had the perfect ending built in. The movie should have ended when Lincoln heads out to the theater, his lanky frame trudging off alone under the arcades of the White House corridors, and says, "I must go, though I wish I could stay." This would have been superior in terms of visuals, pacing, tone, and plot, to another hoary speech.

Of performances, Daniel Day Lewis' is so good it is easy to take for granted. The elements Lincoln's gait and drawl are more properly those of impression than projection, nonetheless they are part of the performance and they convince. Anyway, the acting is more than fine, with a consistent thread of frustration and exhaustion running under Lincoln. You can see the stiffness and tension behind the calm and every time he pulls out one of his many stories, we sense it is as much to quell his own nerves as to assure those around him. Lewis' fine performance is built upon the script's equally fine characterization of Lincoln. We grow to understand that he is drawing on every source he knows, from political allies to enemies, from Euclid to scripture, and turning to every tool he knows from humor to solemnity, not just to win his cause, but simply to carry on.

The supporting cast is generally only successful because they look quirky and speak more finely than we are accustomed. They're effective but not exceptional. When the movie relies on Tommy Lee Jones' grizzled visage for effect we know it's not trying hard enough. Most of what we get to know about the politicians comes from an undeveloped blurb or two about why they do or don't support the Amendment.  Had these characters brought more and better articulation of the arguments for and against Lincoln's maneuvers in conducting the war and passing the Amendment, the the film would have been the richer.

Yet there is much to enjoy in Lincoln, chiefly the dialogue with its rich expression and circumlocutory insults.  On the other hand there is much entertaining talking in Lincoln, but surprisingly little dialogue in which an idea is developed. That Lincoln presents ideas but doesn't really argue them, giving the viewer the false impression that he has been educated an edified, is probably its greatest flaw. Still, there's a good deal here, but Lincoln's not more than the sum of its parts.

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