Dude’s got my vote.
Set three years into the Civil War and a few months after Abe’s re-election, Lincoln is about the 16th President’s efforts to abolish slavery once and for all by passing the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives. With the House divided and the numbers stacked against him, he starts calling in favors and working his magic to obtain the necessary votes, all while juggling his family life behind closed doors.
As much as I love Thanksgiving and as glorious as last week was, holy-effing-hell, were folks chomping at the bit to hear what I thought about Lincoln. It hadn’t even been out a week, I still hadn’t seen it, and by the 16th time the question got asked, it had taken on a life of its own. Strangers were asking me about it, toddlers were asking me about it, and it wasn’t until priests started asking me about it (after which they felt adorably guilty) that I realized I was being punk’d. If it hadn’t been for all that turkey, pie, and beer in my system, I probably would have been bitter about it, too. But alas, such is life when you’re “the movie guy” at family gatherings.
So, 12 hours later, revived from my food coma, I headed off to the movies for what had suddenly become an urgent obligation. Certainly not the worst thing to feel pressured into doing, and it’s not like I was baffled as to why everyone kept asking the question. After all, it’s Abe Lincoln, it’s Daniel-Day Lewis, it’s Steven Spielberg, and it’s Oscar season. This is the kind of movie people wait all year for, and one with an awfully broad audience to boot.
And of the three fellows in question, the biggest seller for me was far and away the first. As great as they (almost) always are, DDL and Speilberg have been commonplace figures in my life – individuals whose contributions and achievements have been hard to ignore, especially since I like movies. But as for Lincoln, well, let’s just say I’m up on the highlights at best. As I’ve already explained in humiliating detail this week, I’m not what you’d call a history buff. Ain’t too much non-fiction on the shelf, and with the exception of my seventh-grade history teacher who was really into The Civil War, the extent of my knowledge of this period in American history has more or less been taught to me by Ken Burns and Michael Shaara. And as handy as I may be when there’s a “Civil War” category on Jeopardy!, I’d be pretty darn useless if it happened to be on “Lincoln.” For chrissakes, I didn’t even know his wife was nuts until Louis C.K. made a skit out of it. Yup, I really need to read Team of Rivals already.
Anyways, it was nice to get caught up in the meantime.
For starters, it was fascinating to get a fuller picture of Lincoln’s personal life as a husband and a father. Given the office that he held and all that he accomplished, it’s almost alien to think of him as anything other than the larger-than-life individual that I’ve come to know through textbooks. And I liked that so much focus was placed on his estranged relationship with his eldest son, his strong relationship with his youngest son, and the strains that his responsibilities to the nation places on his responsibilities to his marriage. It makes him feel like the person he was rather than the President we remember, and it adds to his role as Commander in Chief.
Not only that, but it was fascinating to watch him come to life like this. I mean, I have no idea how they made Daniel Day-Lewis look so damn tall, nor can I venture a guess as to how he managed to walk with such a convincing, lumbering gait. But even considering that I had no prior knowledge of what Lincoln sounded like, talked about, or was passionate about aside from abolitionism and killer beards, DDL makes a pretty convincing Lincoln. It’s his level-headed nature that prefers discussion over debate, a nature that’s made infectious thanks to his soothing “indoor voice” that only reaches its breaking point when he does, which is rare. And at the risk of making the nerdiest comparison one could possibly imagine, it’s a lot like the way Admiral Adama talked. Now that mother effer could lead!
There’s a lot about Lincoln that’s easy to like and a lot about Lincoln that can drive a story. But at the end of the day, this is Daniel Day-Lewis we’re dealing with, and that really says it all. The difference between his performance and that of Tommy Lee Jones’ is that, while both are exceptional as Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, respectively, DDL becomes his role and TLJ is still TLJ. Regardless, they’re both shoo-ins for Oscar noms, and as much as I can heap more praise upon DDL, I gotta say that I am all about the return of TLJ these days. As long as he keeps on stealing scenes and doing his thing like he did in this and Captain America, I will keep on buying tickets. Not to mention that there is an absolute orgy of A-listers cast in side roles and cameos here. For brevity’s sake I won’t list ’em all, but they’re all good and it’s a constant pleasure seeing who’ll pop up next in a puffy shirt and top hate. Although special mentions are in order for what might be my favorite performance of James Spader’s career, and Jackie Earle Haley as that slave-owning su’mbitch Alexander Stephens. Oh, and Sally Field of course. Girl gets it done.
However, there was one thing about Abe that wasn’t so initially likable: apparently the dude really liked telling stories. As a result, every time Lincoln in a room full of bureaucrats – or anyone for that matter – without fail, as soon as things get heated, he’ll chime in and shut ’em up with some lengthy non-sequitur about some semi-unrelated story he once heard back in the day from his dear old pappy. Maybe it’s just me, but I just have an issue with people who can’t help but speak in allusions. It’s like the world is their stage, and we’re forced to be their audience. Serenity now. With that being said, it gets old kind of fast, that is until D-Day calls him out on it and I came to the realization that it’s less a matter of Lincoln loving stories as it is a tactic he used to calm those around him. And with that epiphany gained, he went right back to being the most likable guy in office. Plus, they were some pretty good stories.
I really thought I’d have more to gripe about with this one (not that I get excited about griping over shit), because under someone else’s direction, this could have been a struggle. I’m talking two-and-a-half hours of talking heads, a microscopic amount of action thats over by minute two, and politicians wheeling and dealing until they all vote on something that we already know the outcome of. Going out on a limb here and assuming that last bit wasn’t a spoiler. Really hope it wasn’t, but if it is, this might be the best damn movie you’ve ever seen. Hell, I was short of breath at that voting scene. All the same, it’s not boring in the slightest, it’s surprisingly compelling in fact, and it’s further proof that Spielberg can pull off small-scale with the same panache as his large-scale efforts. In terms of subject matter, structure, and tone, it might not be all that surprising to find that this is very similar to Amistad either. And while it always strikes me as a bit odd to paint a portrait of an individual by focusing on an isolated period in their lives, it’s an effective portrait nonetheless that benefits greatly from a solid balance of drama, heart, and much-needed humor. Just a solid movie all around, really.
Just hoping I’ll be able to say the same about this upcoming Hitchock/Psycho biopic.
It’s still weird to me that it took so long for this biopic to get made, or at the very least get the mini-series treatment a la’ John Adams. But by the same token, that doesn’t really matter given the timeless life story that is Abraham Lincoln’s. Aside from being a well-made, well-acted film, Lincoln is a great slice of American history, of a time when good men did the right thing even if it wasn’t popular, even if it cost people their lives. Further more, it’s a time capsule, a reminder of how things have changed over the years and how we’ve grown/strayed as a people. For instance, Lincoln was a Republican, and it was his party than had to win over votes from the Democrats…to abolish slavery. The House of Representatives looked more the UK’s Parliament, and though it was as divided then as it is today, compromise ultimately prevailed and history was made in the process. Oh lord, how times have changed.
But make no mistake, Lincoln is not a politically biased movie, and if there’s any debate about that, consider that this easily could have hit theaters in October. It is a bipartisan movie about bipartisan politics (albeit begrudgingly bipartisan), and with things at such a standstill in the House these days, it’ll certainly make you long for more from our Senators.
Man oh man, where’s Lincoln when you need him?