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NYFF Impressions: Steven Spielberg Unveils His 'Lincoln' History Lesson In Surprise Screening

Reviews
by Rodrigo Perez
October 8, 2012 10:42 PM
18 Comments
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Characterized by refreshing restraint, its passionate convictions and patience, if Steven Spielberg’s worst tendencies are his propensity for the sentimental and overwrought (as evinced recently in much of  “War Horse”), his latest, “Lincoln,” thankfully possesses almost none of those unfortunate traits. However, as a two hour procedural about the ratification of an amendment in the House Of Representatives (does anything sound more appealing as a premise to you?), "Lincoln" is also not exactly the most engaging nor well-paced picture either.

Pitched somewhere between the staid nature of “Amistad,” “Schindler's List,” and the far less treacly and inspiring latter half of “War Horse,” Spielberg himself unveiled an “unfinished” screening of “Lincoln” at the New York Film Festival this evening, describing it as a "privilege" to go on this journey in exploring the politician's legacy. But to the untrained eye, it would be difficult to discern what exactly was incomplete other than a minutely-detailed framework that could use a much tighter pace and rhythm.

Marked by a forceful, but nicely muted performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th President of the United States, perhaps the film’s greatest asset is the consummate scene stealer Tommy Lee Jones as Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens. A fervent abolitionist, while Stevens and Lincoln are ostensibly on the same side of aiming to end slavery, their methods are thoroughly different; Stevens charging ahead while Lincoln offering the composure of a cool tactician.

Beginning in the fall of 1864, in the midst of Lincoln’s second term as President, while the bloody Civil War is still raging, it looks like the war has an end in sight. However, Lincoln’s primary concern before the battle closes is abolishing slavery beyond the Emancipation Proclamation (an executive order only good during war time) and delivering a lasting and honorable freedom.

Adapted by Tony Kushner (who penned Spielberg’s last great film “Munich”) and based on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” the film centers on the quiet genius of the nation’s leader who has to reconcile conflicting personalities, warring political factions and a treacherous political climate on the rocky path to abolition and victory in the U.S. Civil War.

Tommy Lee Jones in "Lincoln"

And so while not attempting to become an overreaching greatest hits biopic, “Lincoln” zeroes in on these last few months before the 13th Amendment was ratified with Fincher-like precision and commitment. As such, “Lincoln” is heavy on the politics, the dramatic speeches and the charged atmospheres of opposing forces in the House of Representatives to a fault. But at times, this procedural nature of the film -- Lincoln and his Secretary of State worrying about the 20 votes they need to uphold the proposed alteration of the law -- can be tedious and trying. Surprisingly though, “Lincoln” does have a hearty sense of humor, and Kushner cracks out some witty bon mots, but perhaps in the editing process the film can be tightened to discard its lullingly dull agendum moments and focus on the moments that engage.

Co-starring a myriad of supporting actors in its ensemble -- Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son Robert who must fight in the war despite his parents wishes, Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, Lee Pace as former Mayor of New York City Fernando Wood, Jackie Earle Haley as Vice President of the Confederate States of America Alexander H. Stephens, and various congressman, senators, low-level operatives and politicians played by Walton Goggins, Bruce McGill, Wayne Duvall, Michael Stuhlbarg, James Spader, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook and more -- all of these actors do fine work, but none get a lot of screen time to really resonate. Faring far better is Sally Field as Lincoln’s dutiful, but intractable wife Mary Todd Lincoln and David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward (David Warshofsky, Tim Blake Nelson, David Oyelowo and Adam Driver also have small parts and cameos). Gloria Reuben plays Elizabeth Keckley, a civic activist and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, but her role unfortunately is summed up as the token African-American figure used to represent the painful emotional struggle while watching the House bicker and squabble.

Painted in a musty brown and blue, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński does a commendable job of making an inherently unattractive palette look borderline beautiful, especially when dealing with the tonalities of chiaroscuro, but a mostly ugly palette it ultimately is. Thankfully, John Williams' score, easily the worst offender in Spielberg’s “War Horse,” is, like the picture, solemn, well-controlled and moving with a dignified air of grace.

While admirable in its unwavering and committed portrait of an inherently mostly undramatic subject (the approbation of a constitutional amendment, albeit perhaps the most important one in history), ultimately, “Lincoln” reads, at least right now, like a prosaic, semi-compelling history lesson; the type teachers showed to you in school when they saw your eyes glazing over prerequisite text (one you need to know, but not one you're likely going to seek out on your own). With 10 Best Picture nominations available, it seems “Lincoln” should easily procure one of the ten slots, but it would be a surprise to see the film become a threat beyond the actors. Even then Daniel Day-Lewis is perhaps a little too subtle and in-the-pocket for a win, and if there’s a stand-out, it’s likely Tommy Lee Jones who should be a sure-fire nominee in the Best Supporting category. “Lincoln” isn’t all slow and dull. It has occasional sparks, some tremendous actors doing estimable work, and its “climax” is perhaps the most dynamic and thrilling representation of a body of people voting on any law in the history of film. But it’s also, at least in this “unfinished” form, not especially remarkable, enjoyable or wholly compelling. “Lincoln” has its moments and is replete with talent, but in its current state, it could use a lot more finessing before it's delivered to the screen in full. The audience, however, generally had a favorable response to the picture, so it will be interesting to see what, if any, changes and tweaks are made.

"Lincoln" opens in limited release on Friday, November 9, and then expands nationwide on November 16.

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18 Comments

  • Historian | October 20, 2012 10:36 PMReply

    "Emphatically the Black Man's President"
    In Chicago, in July 1858, Abraham Lincoln pleaded with his audience, "let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man; this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position; discarding our standard that we have left us. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal...I leave you, hoping that the lamp of liberty will burn in your bosoms until there shall no longer be a doubt that all men are created free and equal."   
    A study of Lincoln's life reveals him to have never easily fit the mores and customs of his times. Thus, the growth depicted between a pre-presidential and presidential Lincoln is unnecessary. Harry Jaffa's "Crisis of the House Divided", on the Lincoln-Douglas Debates; Richard Striner's "Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle Against Slavery"; Lawanda Cox's "Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership"; James Oakes' "The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics"; Allen Guelzo's "Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America"; and Michael Burlingame's "Abraham Lincoln: A Life"; all show Lincoln, at each stage of his life and career, to be a personally committed man with a progressive political career.
    Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure and applied it only to areas still in rebellion against the national authority, because such was the only way to present it as constitutional. The loyal slave-holding Border states also were crucial to the Union cause and couldn't be alienated. As Union forces advanced and conquered the rebellious areas more and more African-Americans became free. Nonetheless, Lincoln was so concerned that the Proclamation would be ruled unconstitutional that he insisted the 13th Amendment be a part of the 1864 Republican Platform; made sure an unprecedented enforcement clause was added; used all his powers of persuasion and patronage to get it through Congress; and signed the Amendment though his signature was not needed. Frederick Douglass was "impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race" after meeting with Lincoln three times in the White House, and in 1865 called him "emphatically the black man's president."
    Colonization was to be voluntary; Lincoln felt white prejudice so intractable that he urged black leaders to consider it. Colonization was abandoned as ventures failed, and African-Americans rejected it. Lincoln said blacks and whites had to "live out of the old relation and come out better prepared for the new." As president, Lincoln supported bills abolishing segregation on omnibuses in D.C.; for allowing black witnesses in federal courts; for equalizing penalties for the same crime; for equal pay for black soldiers. He welcomed, for the first time, an ambassador from Haiti; African-Americans picnicked on the White House grounds. He supported the activities of the Freedmen's Bureau. When he visited occupied Richmond, he took off his hat and returned the bow of an elderly black man--an act of equality noted by sullen white onlookers and the press alike. In what was his last public address, Lincoln called for public schooling for blacks, and for the vote for black soldiers and the well educated. John Wilkes Booth, in the crowd, seethed "that means n-- citizenship", and vowed the speech was Lincoln's last.
    Runaway slaves, black and white abolitionists, all played a crucial role in slavery's demise. However, President Lincoln was key to the abolition of slavery. A friend of black freedom, Lincoln worked assiduously for "a new birth of freedom" in the United States where all had the opportunity to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

  • Adam | October 20, 2012 9:06 PMReply

    Thank you for the review. I wanted to point out that your sentence "Beginning in the fall of 1864, in the midst of Lincoln’s second term as President..." is wrong. Fall of 1864 was still his first term. He was re-elected in Nov 1864, sworn in for his second term in March 1865, killed a month later.
    Also, just throwing it out there, his Secretary of State, unnamed in your review, was William Seward, one of the most important Americans never elected president. Interesting to me is the notion that it is based on Doris Goodwin's book, as the book largely takes place before 1864 (but does go up through the assassination). I found the most interesting elements of the book to be the discussion of how Lincoln won his rivals over to see him as a president to follow, when they were largely competitors for the position. Anyway, looking forward to it, I think.

  • Grant | October 16, 2012 8:23 PMReply

    Do you suppose Spielberg will mention how Lincoln: suspended the writ of habeas corpus; imprisoned tens of thousands of northern political dissenters; censored all telegraph communications; confiscated firearms in the border states, violating the 2nd Amendment; deported Democratic Congressman Vallandigham for anti-administration speeches; issued an arrest warrant for the chief justice; illegally orchestrated the secession of West Virginia from Virginia; shut down hundreds of newspapers in the north, sometimes imprisoning the editors and owners?

  • Mike R. | October 14, 2012 7:29 PMReply

    This awesome review states the following:

    "Beginning in the fall of 1864, in the midst of Lincoln’s second term as President, while the bloody Civil War is still raging, it looks like the war has an end in sight."

    Wrong. Lincoln's second inaugural address comes halfway through the movie, and occurred on March 4, 1865.

    Did this reviewer even watch the film? The second inaugural is a huge plot point.

    I'm a moron.

  • StephenM | October 9, 2012 8:04 PMReply

    Wow, so this is actually a movie that puts historical accuracy first? Sounds fantastic!

  • Elle | October 9, 2012 8:38 PM

    That's a joke... right?

  • Catherine | October 9, 2012 3:14 PMReply

    I could have written this review. Its that predictable.
    The 'this is boorrring' comments make me want to see even more.
    Imagine that? A film that revolves around characterization and dialogue and expects you to care about the historial context.
    Have we become this lazy?

  • Oogle monster | October 9, 2012 10:21 AMReply

    So, The Master for BP and Director it is? Greaaat!

  • Mr Anonymous | October 9, 2012 10:04 AMReply

    Sounds slow and boring. Another Amistad. Pass.

  • I Was There Too | October 9, 2012 11:41 AM

    It's more dynamic than Amistad, but still pretty dull.

  • Calvin | October 9, 2012 9:53 AMReply

    I love the idea that Spielberg is giving audiences a "history lesson." A revisionist history lesson perhaps. Lincoln was a big fan of colonization and initially he wanted to ship all of the slaves back to Africa. It wasn't until his cabinet got ahold of him and convinced him to keep the slaves in the US so that they could free them, but exploit them financially, that Lincoln got on board. This idea that Lincoln was some "great emancipator" is a joke. But don't take my word for it, just read his own words: in his first debate with Stephen Douglas on August 21st, 1858, Lincoln said "I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races." "I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favour of the race to which I belong having the superior position.” “Free them [slaves] and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this. We cannot, then, make them equals." ..... yeah, real friend of the blacks.... On July 17th, 1858, he said "What I would most desire would be the separation of the white and black races." And in his fourth debate with Douglas he asserted that "I will to the very last stand by the law of this state, which forbids the marrying of white people with Negroes.” - Something tells me we won't be hearing any of this in Spielberg's film. History lesson my ass!

  • kitcon | October 9, 2012 7:07 AMReply

    Totally agree. It could have been more accurately called "The 13th Amendment and 19th C political horse-trading and gamesmanship." While its somewhat interesting as a history lesson esp at this time to see how far the Democrats and Republicans have gone from their original positions, it far from a compelling watch for the public.

  • wholemkt153 | October 9, 2012 12:53 AMReply

    Wonderful.

  • JD | October 8, 2012 11:24 PMReply

    Wow, you people really hate War Horse, don't you? I mean, you just really, really, really HATE it.

    I think all future Playlist articles dealing with Spielberg in any way, shape or form could probably be given the accurate headline "Beating A Dead War Horse"....

  • John N. | October 10, 2012 3:08 AM

    right...

  • Richard K. | October 9, 2012 9:45 AM

    To quote Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood: "Quite whining you sniveling ass!"

  • Chase | October 8, 2012 11:34 PM

    If I were a betting man in Vegas, every Spielberg related article from The Playlist since, and to come, will have War Horse hate somewhere in it.

  • Kevin Klawitter | October 8, 2012 10:58 PMReply

    A 19th Century political drama? Awesome. That's exactly what I wanted. We rarely get a sense of Lincoln as the politician, and yanking back the curtain to show that getting stuff done in Congress was just as difficult in Lincoln's time as it is now could be have great resonance for modern audiences interested in history and politics.

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