Recent Historical Films

 

 

Lincoln (S. Spielberg, 2012)
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

Running time: 150 minutes. Written by Tony Kushner. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lee Pace, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones.

 

2 Academy Awards (12 Nominations): Best Actor (Day-Lewis) and Art Direction.

 

 

Synopsis

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.

 

From the Director

"Lincoln’s leadership is based on a number of precepts but my favorite one is that he acted in the name, and for the good, of the people. In that sense, the two great things he did at the end of his life, to end slavery and the Civil War, was for the good and in the name of the people. He put people ahead of politics, even though he was artful at using politics to be able to accomplish his task. [... Making the film, says the director, confirmed not only his deep love of history but also] the fact that I am a patriot and that I have a love for this country. I have expressed that in other movies, but I really tried to express it in this one – a respect for the fact that democracy works" (By Steven Spielberg).

 

Quotes on the Film

"An absorbing, densely packed, sometimes funny telling of the 16th president's masterful effort in manipulating the passage of the 13th amendment" (Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter).

"The movie is grand and immersive. [...] makes us feel transported as though by time machine [...] The Lincoln we see here is that rare movie creature, a heroic thinker" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly).

"Lincoln offers proof of what magic can happen when an actor falls in love with his character. Because as great as Day-Lewis has been in his many parts, he has never seemed quite so smitten" (Lisa Kennedy, Denver Post).

 

 

Press Clippings

 

By Peter Travers

In Steven Spielberg's brilliant, brawling epic about the last four months in the life of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln takes a few hits up there on his marble pedestal. Political double-dealing was not beyond this American icon, not when his country was struggling in the darkness. What Honest Abe gets back from this defiantly alive film is his humanity – flaws, fears and personal feelings that serve to deepen his thoughts rather than distract them. The phenomenal Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln with the immersive, indelible power of an actor who wears his role like a second skin and feels it down to the nerve endings. This is acting of the highest order.

In adapting just a small part of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, the 2005 bestseller about Lincoln and his Cabinet, screenwriter Tony Kushner blows the dust off history by investing it with flesh, blood and churning purpose. Kushner lets the words come in torrents as Lincoln uses every argument and backroom trick at his disposal to force friend and foe to heal a divided nation. From January to April 1865, the newly re-elected president is torn apart by the bloody Civil War, rattled by domestic battles with his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), and yet lit by a fire in his belly to jam a 13th Amendment through Congress that will forever abolish slavery.

It's a hell of a thing, this Lincoln, a portrait of America as a parade of eloquent, stubborn, patriotic, rebellious, manipulative, passionate talking heads spoiling to be heard. Spielberg and Kushner don't stop for flashbacks and backstory. Lincoln is all forward thrust and hot-damn urgency. Of course, to audiences who prefer visual stimulation to verbal fireworks, Lincoln may seem like a lot of white dudes in wigs shouting at one another. To each his own.

Though Lincoln is seen visiting Union general Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) on the front, battle scenes are scarce. The film begins with soldiers dying in the muck, a sobering sight that gives way to a dialogue between Lincoln and two black Union soldiers who quote his Gettysburg Address back at him and wonder how the proposition that "all men are created equal" will play out in the real world. The sequence is a setup, artificial, perhaps, but a way for us to get our bearings. Even before Reconstruction, Lincoln had to face political skeptics.

Though Day-Lewis plays Lincoln as the calm center in this storm, the actor is expert at letting us see tensions roiling inside him. At home, he soothes his depressive wife – he calls her Molly – who demands that he forbid their eldest son, Robert (a splendid Joseph Gordon- Levitt), from enlisting. Molly spends days brooding in the room of their son Willie, who died of typhoid in 1862, leaving her husband to care for their youngest son, Tad, 12. Field is a live wire as a first lady who won't bend to convention. She is hard on advisers who criticize her spending on a White House she calls a "pig sty." She accepts that history will lionize her husband and dismiss her as "a crazy lady." The role is a tour de force for Field, and she fills it with flame and inner terror.

A more public hell awaits Lincoln on the job. Even his friend, Secretary of State William Seward (a superb, warmly funny David Strathairn), tells Lincoln he can either end the war or abolish slavery. Not both. A Confederate delegation, led by Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), is headed for D.C. to negotiate peace – something it won't do if slavery is outlawed. A harried Lincoln must wrangle a majority vote in the House before the delegation arrives.

It's here, in the fever of debate, that Spielberg proves he can generate terrific suspense. Hold the special effects. Spielberg and Kushner exult in showing Lincoln getting the job done, by whatever means necessary. Janusz Kaminski's burnished camerawork and John Williams' subtly resonant score never overpower the action.

And what action! You can only marvel watching Tommy Lee Jones take the floor as Republican Thaddeus Stevens, a bewigged, fire-breathing abolitionist whose sharp tongue spares no hypocrite. Check out his showstopping takedown of pro-slavery Democrat Fernando Wood (Lee Pace). In an Oscar- caliber performance, Jones is simply sensational, bitingly funny and fearlessly blunt.

Kudos as well to John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and a deliciously smarmy James Spader as a trio of gloves-off lobbyists that Lincoln brings in to pressure his opponents. Lincoln, once a prairie lawyer, is not above legal trickery. And his bracing wit, a hallmark of Kushner's script, gives the movie a surprising buoyancy. Still, the darkness of the film is undeniable. This is a warrior Lincoln pushed to the wall, and aggressively, sometimes blindly, pushing back. Day-Lewis' surpassing artistry makes that a sight to behold. He uses a thin, high voice to approximate the real Lincoln's sound. But its force is always felt. This Lincoln can whisper across canyons.

He can also break your heart. A haunting image is of Lincoln alone, walking through the White House at night like a tormented ghost. I could have used more of that torment. Some scenes of unventilated rhetoric are stagy to a fault, and the script never grapples with how Lincoln's early acceptance of slavery morphed into a zeal to end it. Yet the movie holds us in its grip. Lincoln represents what Teddy Roosevelt defined as "the man in the arena," who even if he fails "at least fails while daring greatly." Spielberg, Kushner and Day-Lewis also dare greatly in giving us this complex, conflicted portrait of a great American leader. The result, glitches and all, is a great American movie.

(Rolling Stone, November 8, 2012)

 

 

By Peter Bradshaw

Abraham Lincoln's second term, with its momentous choices, has been brought to the screen by Steven Spielberg as a fascinatingly theatrical contest of rhetoric and strategy. It is a nest of high politics for the white ruling class, far from the brutality and chaos of the battlefield. At its centre is a gaunt Shakespearian figure, somewhere between Caesar and Prospero.

Spielberg has made a moving and honourably high-minded film about this world-changing moment of American history, his best for many years: I can't imagine anyone not wanting to see it, and to experience the pleasures of something acted with such intelligence and depth. There is admittedly sometimes a hint of hokum; how you react to the film may depend on how you take the opening sequence in which Lincoln, seated like the famous statue but with an easy smile, listens to two black soldiers telling him how they see the war – a slightly Sorkinian scene that ends with one reciting the Gettysburg address while walking away from the president. It is a flight of fancy, not strictly plausible, but very effective in establishing a mood music that swells progressively throughout the picture.

Lincoln exerted a grip on me; it is literate, cerebral, heartfelt, with some brilliantly managed moments and, of course, a unique central performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. He portrays Lincoln as a devastating master of charm and exquisite manners, skilled in imposing his authority with a genial anecdote, a man with the natural leader's trick of making people want to please him. He speaks in an unexpectedly light, clear voice that is nonetheless shading off into the maundering monologue of an old man, exhausted by war and personal catastrophes.

Day-Lewis, like Olivier before him, is a master of the voice and the walk: it's almost as if he has alchemised his body shape into something different: bowed, spindly and angular, gnarled as a tree, exotic and yet natural as his tall hat, often holding the straight right arm at the elbow with the left behind his back: the civilian equivalent of military bearing. His Lincoln is aware that his strength is ebbing; he is on the point of ossifying into a legend incapable of action. He is often seen in semidarkness, his face turned down in contemplation of possible, terrible defeat, or the certain terrible cost of victory: like the Shikler portrait of Kennedy.

His political capital, though great, is a deteriorating asset, and as the civil war grinds on, Lincoln begins his second term wishing to stake it all on rushing through a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery before defeating the South. To get it through the system, he must do business with truculent radical Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), and at the same time entreat conservative Republican Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) for his faction's votes. Blair's condition is that Lincoln must swallow his pride and accept, or appear to accept, some sort of secret, provisional peace mission from the rebels in Virginia, a risky gesture that the president must conceal from his trusted secretary of state, William Seward (David Strathairn). Dangerous evasions and compromises are made, but the rebels stay strong; they do not surrender as Lincoln hopes and the awful, unthinkable truth is that he may have to abandon his anti-slavery amendment as a sop to get them to talk peace, end the bloodshed and preserve the Union. Has he gambled and lost?

There are some heartstoppingly good setpieces. The moment in which Lincoln has to raise the flag outside a naval building, after a short, self-deprecating speech that he has written on a piece of paper – kept in his hat – is a superbly managed scene: modest, undramatic, gently comic. Sally Field is outstanding as Lincoln's wife, nursing rage and hurt that almost boils over as she must bandy words at a White House reception with Stevens, whom she detests: Spielberg shows Abraham in the background, chatting diplomatically but then noticing how Mrs Lincoln is about to damage his chances with a key ally.

On two occasions, we see a flash of anger from the president, when his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to join the army against his parents' wishes, and when his wife confronts him about the unmentionable subject of their late son, and their unspeakable burden of grief and guilt. Most of the time, Lincoln's emotions and energies are encoded in the opaque language of diplomacy and politics: when he is openly angry, he seems poignantly weak and vulnerable.

Another sort of film would have concentrated more on these personal crises, but Spielberg has made the right structural decision in containing them and dramatising the formality, the procedure, the outward political ritual on which everything depends. And what a feat from Day-Lewis: the nearest thing a 21st-century biopic can get to a seance.

(The Guardian, January 24, 2013)