Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Movie – Lincoln (2012)

Everything about Lincoln the movie (aka “LtM” to distinguish it from the man) screams “quality”.  You can see it in the performances, in the sets, in the costumes and makeup, and in the dialogue.  In addition, it’s about an Important Topic.  If you weren’t sure from the subject matter, the fact that well known actors and actresses appeared in this film in roles much smaller than usual showed how important they felt it was.  Finally, it has a stellar Oscar pedigree among the people who made it (more on that in a bit.)  With all these things going for it, it is no surprise to me that it received more Oscar nominations this year (12) than any other film.  Despite all of this, and while I think it is a good film, it ultimately did not grab me emotionally as much as I thought it would.

I mentioned the Oscar pedigree.  The cast includes close to two dozen recognizable actors, some even in single scene roles.  Among them are seven prior Oscar nominees: Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln – 5 noms, 2 wins; Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln – 3 noms, 2 wins; Tommy Lee Jones as Rep. Stevens – 4 noms, 1 win; David Strathairn as Sec. of State Seward – 1 nom; Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair – 1 nom; John Hawkes as Robert Latharn – 1 nom; and Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate V.P. Alexander Stephens – 1 nom.  That’s a total of 16 nominations and 5 wins for the cast.

Added to this is that the film is directed by Steven Spielberg – 7 noms, 2 wins for directing and 8 noms, 1 win for Best Picture; adapted from noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals by Tony Kushner – 2 noms; shot by Janusz Kaminski – 6 noms, 2 wins; edited by Michael Kahn – 8 noms, 3 wins; has production and set design by Rick Carter – 4 noms, 1 win, and Jim Erickson – 2 noms; a couple dozen combined nominations and several wins for the sound guys, and it is scored by John Williams, who has a total of 48 Oscar nominations and 5 wins on his resume.  Put all of this together and the cast and crew of Lincoln have well over 100 Oscar nominations and over 20 Oscar wins among them.

LtM mostly focuses on the political wrangling to get the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed in the month of January 1865, close to the end of the Civil War.  This amendment would abolish slavery in the United States.  While Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation a couple years earlier, it fell into a gray area in regards to whether it was legal for the President to do that.  Because of this Lincoln wants to ensure that the end of slavery is embedded in the primary document in the land – the Constitution.  His Cabinet and members of his Republican party are against him pushing for this because they feel they will lose the fight and it will tarnish the just re-elected President before he can even start his second term.

There is much wheeling and dealing to get enough members of the opposition party – the Democrats – to vote for the Republican sponsored measure.  Strong opposition comes in the form of Rep. Wood (Lee Pace); support, although of a questionable kind, comes from Rep. Stevens.  It is questionable because he wants nothing less than full equality in everything for the freed slaves and this is something even many members of the Republican Party cannot tolerate.  Lincoln needs every single vote from the Republicans in the House of Representatives, plus 20 more votes from Democrats for it to pass.  If you don’t like politics with all the backroom deals and mudslinging that goes on, then a major portion of this film will not appeal to you.

While all of this is going on Lincoln is also burdened with the upcoming attack on the last open port in the Confederacy; with his wife’s constant attacks on him for either not caring enough for her and their sons, for not telling her every state secret, and/or for not checking with her on every decision he makes; with his wife agitating political allies he needs to side with him to get the amendment passed; with his youngest son who wants a father’s attention; with his idiot of an oldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who wants to save his honor by going and getting himself shot on the battlefield; by a mover and shaker who wants Lincoln to directly negotiate with the Confederacy for peace; and with daily duties that include audiences with ordinary citizens bringing their problems to him.

Lincoln faces all of this with equanimity and home-spun stories, rarely raising his voice to anyone.  When he finally does (i.e. confronting his wife, getting fed up with his squabbling Cabinet) the scenes are riveting.  I’m sure the Cabinet scene is the clip that will be played on Oscar night for Day-Lewis’ nomination.  I’m also pretty sure that he will be the one once again walking up on stage to receive the Oscar. 

The fight over the amendment concludes with a vote (which I won’t spoil, but if you are American than you should damn well already know what the result was), but the film continues for another 20 minutes or so.  Spielberg does take it up to the end of Lincoln’s life, something that I’m not sure the film needed.  There’s a shot where Lincoln is walking down a long hallway in the White House to join his wife for the fateful evening in Ford’s Theater.  He gets further and further away, fading away from us.  To me, that would have been the best ending for the film, sort of a Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees shot.

I can only speculate about how non-Americans will receive this film.  I expect that most will have at least heard of Lincoln, know about how he died, and know that “he freed the slaves”.  This film will give them a lot more of the man and how he worked with others, so non-Americans may actually find this film very interesting.  One idiot on IMDB claimed that no non-American would like this movie because it was about an American president.  I disagree with this.  By the same “logic” no American should have been interested in The King’s Speech, which won the Best Picture Oscar just two years ago.

As I said at the top, LtM is a good film, but it didn’t connect with me quite as much as I thought it would.  I was not bored at all, but people who care nothing about the inner workings of how something gets passed in Congress may find stretches of this film hard to take.  Overall, I would give it a “high 3” stars out of 5.  If you have any interest in the man the film is about then I definitely recommend you give it a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. The word I would use to describe this film is "solid." Everything about it was well done, but like you, I wasn't that emotionally grabbed by it. It's a good movie, but not the best one of the year.

    I thought DDL's performance was spot on - he played Lincoln exactly the way I imagined him when I was reading Team of Rivals. But Tommy Lee Jones really stole the movie for me. He brought a lot of much needed humor and spark. I would totally be ok with TLJ winning the best supporting actor Oscar.

    1. It wouldn't surprise me if Jones won, but I think Day-Lewis will for sure, and I don't know if voters will want to spread their votes around to other movies or not.

  2. Good review Chip. This cast is great and DDL leads them all with frivolous power and dedication to a person we all thought we knew so much about, but totally changed our look and view on him.

    1. I think this film will long be best remembered for Day-Lewis' performance in it.

  3. Add me to the list of people who were underwhelmed by this film. Performances were great, minus Sally Field, but the movie itself didn't blow me away. It's classic Oscar-bait, but I don't think it's worthy of a Best Picture nomination.


    1. I think it was already a foregone conclusion when Spielberg was making this that it would eventually get a Best Picture nomination. Hollywood likes to create frontrunners just as much as everyone else.