Sunday, December 16, 2012

Spielberg's Lincoln Delivers

I'd been following the development of this film for a couple years now, anticipating something as big as its theme. Spielberg's Lincoln, finally released after twelve years in development, is stellar, laden with stars who undoubtedly anticipated this film would deliver as potently as imagined. And it does.

The knockout punch is not just the fine acting, but the cinematography. When we went a few weeks back, the theater was packed, and our seats were near the front off to the side. No problem though. I'm sure that from any angle I would have had this same experience of wishing I could stop the film and breathe in through my eyes every image from every minute of the film. I'm serious. Every shot was a work of art, bar none. The painstaking beauty of creating the sets, re-creating every detail of the times, was so hyped ahead of time that I did not expect to be so moved by it. But it's a moving film, in every respect.

The story, which you no doubt know by now, is about Lincoln's efforts to pass the 13th Amendment that would ban slavery forever in this country. He had the foresight to recognize that once the Southern states were returned to the union, the passage of such an amendment would become impossible. As this movie demonstrates, the passage was nigh impossible even with the absence of the South.

Daniel Day-Lewis deserves the praise he's received from the critics. The film is a masterpiece in every sense of the word and casting has to be atop that list. Having read numerous books on Lincoln and listened to the speeches of Lincoln as delivered by Raymond Massey who a generation ago "became" Lincoln for a spell, it's quite a task to capture all the nuances of Lincoln's character in such a brief time frame as this 150 minute film permits. But the screenwriters worked deftly and Day-Lewis assumes the persona of the self-taught backwoodsman who became a president during one of our most critical historical periods.

Frequently when reviewing films I like to cite a few comments from imdb.com. Not everyone shares the same point of view on even the most cherished classics, whether film or literature and imdb.com is usually reliable to serve up some spicy contrarians.

One criticism is that the film is not about the Civil War or slavery or even Lincoln. To this I would say that in the field of cartography, a map is not necessarily made more accurate and useful by being increased in size to the point of being an identical reproduction of the city, state or country. All storytellers, as well as memoir writers, but wrestle with the problem of what to leave in and what to leave out. In this instance, Spielberg has given us a magnified close-up of a singular event in Lincoln's life, the passage an amendment through congress. Like any good story, the chosen event is revealing about the character and motivations of the man. The event takes place in a context, and the story has significant reverberations for all who see or hear of it.

Another criticism of the film was the film score by John Williams. I suppose the purpose of this film was more to tell the story rather than sell CDs afterwards. I do not recall it being offensive or intrusive, and recall noting early in the film that it seemed suitable at the time.

A third criticism leveled at Lincoln has to do with the manner in which the screenplay has been sponged through and through with political correctness. The film, they claim, is devoted to the greatness of Lincoln and is unrestrained in making him out to be heroic. Well, it took about 125 years for critics of Robert E. Lee to have their voices heard without being hounded and howled out. Lee was a great man, but still just a man. Lincoln's critics were vocal much sooner. He was hated in his lifetime and certainly the grounds for that have never dissipated in some places where he has been regarded as the primary cause of the immense loss of life during the Civil War.

When I saw the film I myself was (perhaps foolishly) blind to the PC observations some critics have made, absorbed as I was in the cinematic depictions of the times. Yes, I noticed that the White House was not called the White House till years later but it didn't bother me.

In an age where action films about terrorists and terminators and superheroes abound, a straight up historical drama is not going to grab its audiences in quite the same manner. But then again, this film is a work of art and art appreciation varies with different audiences. People who gravitate to the Bourne Identity just might find Henry Fonda a tad boring in Twelve Angry Men. And I promise you, there are no chase scenes trying to compete with Daniel Craig for the best chase scene ever in a motion picture.

Bottom line, I thought the film quite powerful and worth seeing. I also had something of a epiphany at the end. Lincoln, after he was shot at Ford Theater, died the day on April 15. If you know your history, you'll also recall that he was born on February 12. These two dates are the birthdays of two of the four most significant women in my life: my mom and my daughter.

Three or four years ago I became friends with a passionate Lincoln buff who was living in Springfield, Illinois at the time. You might enjoy that blog entry titled Ten Minutes with an Ardent Lincoln Buff from Illinois.

If you see the film, tell me what you think. In the meantime, have a very special day.

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