Sunday, January 20, 2013

Amending Freedom For All


LINCOLN

President Abraham Lincoln has earned in place in the hearts of all Americans, the standard to which all other Presidents are measured.  Every President since our 16th looks to Lincoln and hopes to rank with him.  Few have.  Since his death in 1865 one can count on one hand those that have succeeded Lincoln who are considered close to him: Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan are the only ones who are held to be among the greatest where Lincoln is already enshrined.  However, perhaps because Abraham Lincoln has been so deified films about him tend to be extremely reverential (with the exception of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a film I enjoyed but that few others appeared to).  We now have Lincoln, which was well-made, well-acted, and a fine film.  However, I found that in the end Lincoln to be a bit of a misnomer since most of Lincoln isn't about the President itself but about how he struggled and ultimately managed to push through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, abolishing slavery in America.

President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has won re-election, but now in January 1865 he is set on passing the 13th Amendment, despite the fierce opposition of the Democrats whom he still needs to provide the votes for passage in the House.  To help get the necessary votes, he and his trusted Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) hire three proto-lobbyists to get the Democrats who might be swayed, some who are lame-ducks, some who might lose their seats if a close election is called against them by either Republican governors or a Republican-dominated House.

Of course, the rascally Radical Republicans give the President a headache also.  Their leader, Representative Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) causes him trouble because of his passionate advocacy of 'Negro' rights, daring to suggest in his long career that 'Negroes' are equal to whites.  Only Republican Party founder and grandee Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) can keep the non-Radicals in line, but a price of his cooperation is seeing a peace delegation from the Confederacy, which the President steadfastly refuses to acknowledge exists.  This delegation, headed by Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), held as the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, is kept waiting while Lincoln is working to ensure the 13th Amendment (so that the Emancipation Proclamation and the issue of slavery is settled once and for all, thus keeping the courts out of the possibility of returning slaves to bondage).

With his skills and a little wheeling and dealing, the Amendment is passed.  Lincoln then jumps to the surrender of Lee at Appomattox and then his assassination.

Here is the curious thing to me about Lincoln: it isn't about him.  Tony Kushner's screenplay (based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals) is strong when it comes to the maneuvering and thinking of the President.  It shows that Lincoln was always two or three steps ahead intellectually of everyone else.  We get Lincoln and others in his circle (from his Cabinet members to Republican leaders) working to get their way, whether it is passage of the Amendment or get the peace delegation to be received.  The machinations of the participants was well-written and highly entertaining (the debates in the House during the Lincoln Administration were certainly more lively and entertaining than the ones we have now). 

HOWEVER, given the film is called Lincoln, one would have expected the film to be ABOUT Lincoln.  President Lincoln certainly wasn't a supporting character or someone that just pops in and out.  My issue with Lincoln is that the story we're told (the passage of the 13th Amendment and the various plans to promote or derail it) could have been told from another vantage point.  One could have made a film about Representative George Yeaman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who opposed slavery on moral grounds but who feared the Amendment would lead to full equality to blacks, a step he wasn't willing to make.  A film could also have been made on Representative Wells Hutchins (Walton Goggins), who while not having won his re-election bid still voted to defy his party to cast a vote for the Amendment (what would be called a Profile in Courage).

Instead, because Lincoln was almost squarely about the work of passing the 13th Amendment, the film flounders as a biopic.  In fact, once the Amendment passes, we get just a bit more about Lincoln and then he dies.  I cannot help feel that while Lincoln IS a good film, it is not a film about Lincoln per se.

However, this isn't to throw Lincoln under the bus.  Day-Lewis broke with tradition by giving the President a more accurate higher register, which goes against the idea that Lincoln's voice was stentorian and grand (read: deep).  His performance as the wise (and on occasion, wise-cracking) Commander-in-Chief was brilliant: for the most part gentle but also with flashes of anger.  When Lincoln does focus on the family issues (his at times unstable wife Mary--Sally Field--or his elder son Robert--Joseph Gordon-Levitt) we do get strong performances from them all. 

In fact, I don't think there is a bad performance among any of the Lincoln cast.  Even the minor roles such as Stuhlbarg or Goggins or Lee Pace as Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood or Gloria Reuben as Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker/friend and confidant Elizabeth Keckley were all done well.  Jones dominates his scenes as Stevens, who is prickly and shrewd and unbending.  Thus when he equivocates on his lifelong pledge of racial equality to ensure passage it is in turns shocking but wildly clever.

How I see Lincoln is that the film is passionately reverential.  John Williams' music treats the President with reverence (though when the lobbyists are rounding up cued it to be comical).  Janusz Kaminski's cinematography bathes Lincoln with appropriate grandness (the last shot of Lincoln, where the President gives a section of his Second Inaugural Address, the Malice Towards None, Charity for All Speech while emerging from a candlelight was a bit much for my taste). 

Ultimately, I found Lincoln to be proper, well-made, but the President was still bathed in near-divine light, less human and more the President we all love and admire, but still don't fully know.  Respectful, respectable, reverential.  Nothing wrong with that, but perhaps a little more of the human touch might have pushed Lincoln to a higher level, to that level the film aspires to and the President has long achieved.                 

DECISION: B+   

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