In 2005, there were two biopics released about Truman Capote. One performed well and the other did not, mainly because both films were competing for the same audience. 2012 is the year of Abraham Lincoln so it seems, but the two movies about Honest Abe will certainly not cannibalize each other.
The first, released over the summer, was “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” I’m still unsure why someone felt it interesting or compelling to put Lincoln and vampires together in a story, but that movie was clearly intended for a youth, popcorn-munching audience. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which opens going into the Thanksgiving and holiday seasons, is a sure-fire Oscar contender that will draw more mature, serious-minded viewers. One would hope, however, that younger audiences, having Lincoln on their minds, will see the latter film. If they do so, they won’t be let down, and they will learn a great deal in the process.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner, Doris Kearns Goodwin
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and David Strathairn
I say they won’t be let down cautiously, for if there is one fault with Spielberg’s “Lincoln” it’s that, at times, the film gets bogged down in the horse-trading and minutiae of political deal-making. This doesn’t make for exciting cinema, instead feeling like a late night session of CSPAN.
I recall some years back Robert McNamara being asked if he had seen Kevin Costner’s movie Thirteen Days, which depicted the events surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy White House’s response to it (in which McNamara played a key role). The questioner asked if McNamara believed the movie was accurate. He replied, “No, but if it had been the audience would have been bored to tears.”
“Lincoln” is based on the book Team of Rivals by Massachusetts’ own Doris Kearns Goodwin. I don’t know how faithful an adaptation it is, but my guess is not very. Though I have not read Goodwin’s book, I believe its thrust was Lincoln’s style of governance and how he incorporated former political opponents into his cabinet and administration. Indeed, this would be hard to form a compelling film around, so Spielberg wisely chooses to focus the plot of his movie on the passage of the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) in the House of Representatives. It’s here where things slow down at times, as Lincoln, his cabinet, and political operatives discuss how to get the necessary votes to pass the amendment. And it’s also here where McNamara’s quip becomes applicable, for these scenes feel like watching a wonky political debate—and we’re all sick of that after the long 2012 political season.
But just as you think these scenes drag, Spielberg whisks you away to touching moments between Lincoln and his wife or his two sons or front line and wounded soldiers. Spielberg also makes a key strategic decision in this movie, one that I think works: there are no battles. We get very brief glimpses of the actual Civil War, but the focus of the movie is Lincoln’s White House. If you are looking for Glory or Gettysburg, you won’t find it here. Another Civil War film with epic battlefield scenes would have been clichéd.
“Lincoln” is about a man and the cloistered world of a 19th century President. Bedrooms, offices, taverns, cramped living quarters, and the floor of the House of Representatives are the battlefields on which this drama is played, and it’s done effectively. Daniel Day Lewis will win the Oscar for Best Actor. I’m saying it now. Day Lewis chooses his roles carefully, and he knocks this one out of the park. From the voice of Lincoln to the jaunty way the President walked to the manner in which he told his homespun stories, the performance is first-rate. Supporting rolls by Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, and, especially, James Spader are excellent as well and will all draw Oscar attention.
Cinematically, the movie is muted—as it should be. The people are gray and pallid, the spaces dusty and gloomy. A la Schindler’s List and the pink dress in the black and white world of Hiterlism, Spielberg reveals his presence as a director only a few times in “Lincoln.” It’s enough to make you aware of him but not pleading for praise.
Inevitably, someone will draw a parallel between Lincoln and contemporary politics. The 13th Amendment was one of the most significant pieces of legislation in American history, and I’m guessing some pundit will compare it to the passage of Obamacare. But of all the consequential things said and done during Lincoln’s Presidency and the Civil War, I can’t see “We have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it” (perhaps the most memorable line from the Obamacare debate, uttered by Nancy Pelosi) stacking up.
If there is one drama worth seeing this coming movie season, “Lincoln” is it.