Friday, November 30, 2012

Film Review - Lincoln

The civil war battlefield was not pretty. Today we see romanticized views of those battles and many travel to fields in Virginia to perform Civil war re-enactments sporting pristine Blue and Grey uniforms.  These history and war enthusiasts march in line shoot their weapons happily heading home at days end.

We get a real view of the fighting in the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. It's close and personal, face to face , more of a wrestling match in the mud then anything else and ends with a knife to a vital organ, strangulation or a strike with any blunt object one can get ones hands on. After the battle all that is left is intermingled rotting copses from both sides and the buzzing sound of flies.

The debate in Congress to amend the Constitution for the 13th time to abolish slavery is the main topic of the film. Lincoln's Republican party pro and the Democratic Party con. Based on both parties ideology today their positions flipped at some point the why, how and who was responsible would be a great subject for a film in it's own right.

President Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) first has to convince his Cabinet to support the position moreover the last attempt failed so he will need Democratic support to get the bill  passed. Secretary of State William Seward (David Stratharairn) employees three nefarious characters led by W.N. Bilbo     (James Spader) armed with patronage appointments for vulnerable Democrats to get those votes.  Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) The senior senator from the great state of Pennsylvania is the grand old man of the senate. A crusader for emancipation for many years he knows that the vote will be close and vows to keep himself in check to not let his enthusiasm scare off potential Democratic supporters or be reported to the media and alarm the country.

Against this background is the ongoing civil war. The South loosing more of its strongholds sends a delegation to sue for peace. If the delegation gets to Washington the motion will be in jeopardy.  Lincoln believes that the temporary status of the slaves freed for the war must be made permanent for their and their descendants future. If the democrats or the public learn of the delegation negotiations to end the war would become paramount  and the vote postponed. Lincoln wants the vote because it's the right thing to do and after it passes the South is still fighting a loosing battle and will have to still sue for peace.

Daniel Day Lewis the greatest actor working today is Abraham Lincoln on screen. In two particular quiet scenes you will feel that your are listening to the man himself.  The first is in a Northern base camp He is speaking to two black soldiers asking where they are from and learning a little about their lives and their actions on the battle field.  One mentions that he heard the address at Gettysburg.  Two white soldiers then wonder in to report that they were at Gettysburg as well. The three of them begin to recite parts of the address while the fourth is silent. As they all turn away and head their separate ways the fourth picks up where the others left off recounting the next part of the speech perfectly word for word.

The other is a a quiet middle of the night conversation with is his two speech writers. He asks them about their prior occupations before coming to Washington. One was an engineer and they discuss the nature of that profession. Lincoln ties in the science of engineering to the vote. They also discuss whether one choose the times in which you are born or fit into your era eloquently ending with his reasoning on why this vote must pass.

The film is packed full of great performances Jones as the above mentioned Thaddeus Stevens, Spader  as Seward agent Bilbo and Sally Field is wonderful as Mary Todd Lincoln who will stand up to any politician including Thaddeus Stevens to make her point even if a it means holding up a receiving line at the White House. While on the flip side can come across as emotionally unstable describing her self as a burden on the President. They have an epic disagreement over their son Robert ( Joseph  Gordon Livett) who upon returning from his legal studies in Boston wants to sign up for the Army rather than return to school.

Screenwriter  Tony Kushner and Spielberg focus on a distinct period January 1865 for the film and avoid the temptation of touching on two many subject. The world created for the film is outstanding. The wooden sidewalks, the mud, the horses and a small veterans hospital with a pit full of recently severed body parts out back gives a multi sense authentic experience of the day. The closeness to the leaders and access of the public to the leaders is unmanageable especially in today's post 911 world. Citizens can wonder down to the congress floor during a debate or off the street through the front door and into Lincoln's White House office at a whim. At some points the President appears to be a local town official in a store front office hearing and making recommendations to his constituents.

The star of the film is the set of House of Representatives itself. Jim Erickson and Peter Frank created a set that has tight quarters with a balcony closely hanging over top to give the sense of a sunken theatre with the gallery on top of the players. The closeness of the representatives desks adds to the lively debate.  The  floor of the House is only two steps from the front row of representatives so when a speaker is making a thunderous point like leading Democratic Representative Fernando Wood he is literally right in the face of his republican adversaries.

Long time Spielberg collaborator John Williams delivers and excellent score supporting the visuals where needed and building to a crescendo in the right instances to underscore the story on the screen.

A film of immense scope Spielberg has created the definitive film on the 16th President of the United States.

***  out of 4

Lincoln | Steven Spielberg | USA | 2012 | 150 Minutes.

o wan

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