Honest (when necessary) Abe: My review of ‘Lincoln’

“About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”
— Ernest Hemingway


*Apologies for the tardiness of this review. I viewed Lincoln at the AMC Van Ness in San Francisco on Wednesday, 21 November 2012.

It’s said that “history is written by the winners”. It makes sense – when the dust clears after a clash of two mighty forces, do you want to argue with the one left standing? Not only will the declared winners write the history, they will specifically do so to make themselves look good; no matter how bad they were. That’s how you wind up with the Romans – the very ones who crucified Christ – being the ones who call the shots (via the Vatican) for Catholicism. That’s how Qin Shi Huang is remembered as “the great king who unified all of China and helped build the Great Wall”, rather than a mad tyrant who burned books, buried scholars alive, and became China’s first emperor by leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. It’s the reason Henry Ford (a paranoid and unapologetic anti-Semite) is still hailed as The Great Automotive Innovator, whilst the ahead-of-his-time Preston Tucker is nothing more than “that guy Jeff Bridges played in that Coppola movie“.

It is here that, as usual, the arts give us perspective. The arts can be used to reinforce myths just as well as they scrutinise them. It’s a delicate balance, made both more difficult and easy with the passage of time. Technological innovation and changing audience tastes will allow for, if not outright demand, new interpretations of well-spun stories. This may add a new dimension of realism or simply make the biggest bullshit more believable. As more evidence of the story becomes available, artists will naturally want to interpret them in their own fashion.

This often proves tricky: will deviating from the traditional interpretation alienate those who admire said tradition? Will adhering to the classic alienate newcomers? What is the line between “looking with new eyes” as opposed to flat-out revision?

Few topics are as debated with such scrutiny as American history, and few American historical subjects are as scrutinised as President Abraham Lincoln. Most of us grew up hearing stories of “Honest Abe” – the “Great Emancipator” who the man who ended slavery, brought the country together, and wound up having the worst night of theatre until Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark opened for previews on Broadway. It wasn’t until we got older and did our own research that we began hearing stories of his fiery temper, his troubled marriage to a mentally shattered wife, questions of his own sexuality, the idea that he might not have ended slavery if given another viable option, and the fact that he was a fearsome pugilist (seriously, why wouldn’t you mention him kicking ass? Kids wanna know their presidents can throw down).

It is with much of this mental baggage that I went into Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln hoping for the best, but prepared for the pandering worst. Mind you, I had a great deal of faith that Spielberg’s technical prowess and ability to command great performances would be on hand. But the guy has a problem with being overly sentimental, even with stories that dealing with the darkest aspects of human nature (the schmaltz of Schindler’s List, the out-of-place humour of Amistad, the bookends of Saving Private Ryan, and that final shot of Munich).

Still, I was determined to go into the film with as open a mind as I could find. My patience was rewarded… mostly.

In January of 1865, President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is faced with obstacles from every direction: publicly he is attempting to pass a 13th amendment to United States Constitution which would abolish slavery in the country (he has already enacted his Emancipation Proclamation); privately he has begun negotiations to end for the surrender of the South and the end of the Civil War; he is at odds with his headstrong son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has left Harvard to become a Union officer; and he is also at odds with his mentally unstable wife Mary (Sally Field). Even his closest advisors and cabinet members warn him that he will not be able to achieve most of his goals unless he sacrifices others.

With the aid of powerful allies – such as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) – and the use of morally questionable tactics, Lincoln proves unshakeable in his quest to end the war and bring freedom.

Last year the theatre company of which I am a member staged Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day. At nearly three hours of runtime, our artistic director would joke with the audience that it was “short for a Kushner piece”. The same could also be said for 2 hr. 50 min. runtime of Lincoln – for which Kushner wrote the screenplay – which has the added benefit of not being dragged down by the writer’s often long-winded (and sometimes myopic) leftist ideology. Don’t get me wrong: he’s a great writer and I (who consider myself neither exclusively Conservative or Liberal) can agree or disagree with his positions, but there are times when I just think “Jesus Christ, Tony, give it a rest”.

I felt no such trudging through the muck whilst watching Lincoln. Combing some of Kushner’s better attributes (strong dialogue and interesting characters) with Spielberg’s masterful command of the frame and attention-to-detail, the film kept me interested through the entire screening. Until the end, I felt there was nary a moment or word wasted… until the end. I was going to wait until the end of the review to mention this, but I might as well do it now. (NOTE: as the film is based on well-known historical events, I do not consider the following details to be spoilers.)

As I mentioned in my review of Cloud Atlas, there comes a point in every story when the point is made and the story should end: the characters have gone through their arcs, all necessary plot points have been given closure, the bladders of the audience have reached their capacities. Unfortunately, Lincoln – like Cloud Atlas before it (and far too many Spielberg films since the start of the 2000s) – overstays its welcome in its final minutes. Said minutes are dedicated to that infamous night at the theatre.

The problem with both endings is that they don’t add anything to the stories told. Lincoln is about Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment and end the Civil War, both of which the film dramatises wonderfully. And although every American schoolchild knows the story of his assassination, it has no place in this story; it’s gratuitous. I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s review of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, in which he notes what-he-thought-to-be the conspicuous absence of her beheading. Why would it be needed? Her life was effectively over when the people rose against her. To show an infamous act of violence would do nothing more than cater to audience bloodlust.

The fabled "team of rivals".

The fabled “team of rivals”.

Having gotten that out of the way, I don’t know what to say about the performances that hasn’t been said already? Daniel Day-Lewis once again proves himself to possibly be the greatest living film actor by disappearing into the role of Lincoln. Resisting the temptation to give the 16th president the sort of sonorous timbre one would associate with a great orator, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln speaks with a (more historically accurate) raspy, throaty voice that belies a man willing to fight ‘til his last breath for his beliefs.

Though not so much disappearing into his role, Tommy Lee Jones no less finds the heart of abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. When I first saw the trailer to the film, I was worried that Lee’s ridiculous wig would be distracting. Thankfully I stuck with it. You see the wig is supposed to look ridiculous – that is Stevens intent: a conspicuous act of vanity that would have his opponents underestimate his resolve (which they do at their own misfortune). Lee brings an appropriate dignity and self-awareness to the president’s friend on the floor of Congress, and it’s wonderful to see them fight against men who are on the wrong side of history.

Equally fine performances are to found from Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s oldest living son, Tom. As much as his father believes in his side of the war, the thought of losing another son to it is something neither he nor his wife can bare. Said wife is played by Sally Field. Some have found take on Mary Todd to be over-the-top scenery-chewing; I disagree. I think she’s a woman who has come to the end of her mental rope and can barely hang on – that never looks pretty.

I could go on about the performances of Bruce McGill, David Strathairn, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and even Gloria Reuben, amongst others. But iff the cast had one sore thumb, it is Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. Whereas everyone else embodies their characters to a “T”, Harris’ performance seems to consist of nothing but “gruff voice and harsh stare”. Harris is a fine actor who I usually enjoy, but I couldn’t help noticing his natural English brogue slipping through. He gives only one shade to Grant, and it makes him seem as though he wasn’t as committed as the rest of the cast. This and the ending are the film’s only two shortcomings.

The problem with telling history is that there’s just so much of it to tell; you’re bound to leave something out. It is the artist’s job to tell the story in a way that is accurate given the known facts, but dramatically compelling to an audience. This film has done that exceedingly well. After having spent the last decade-or-so reading of Spielberg’s numerous attempts to film the story of Abraham Lincoln, I’m glad this is the one he chose to tell. It was well worth the wait.

Grade:            A-

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