Monday, November 26, 2012

Lincoln

In a movie with as many moving parts and grand, powerful sweeps of emotion, it is difficult to sum up one's overall impressions. The only thing tougher would be creating a movie that summed up Abraham Lincoln. 



I do not for an instant think that is what Steven Speilberg's "Lincoln" has done. It does not, for all time, set down what Lincoln meant as a human being, president, or cultural touchstone. It simply tells a story. In general, that's enough for me.

Lincoln is the kind of movie that should seen a lot longer than it actually does. It's about IMPORTANT WEIGHTY HISTORICAL moments. The cast list is filled with names like Ulysseus S. Grant, and Thaddeus Stevens you probably dimly remember from high school history class. It has costumes. My wife entered the theater with a quick warning, "don't get angry at me if I fall asleep." Nary a nudge was needed. The film whips by in two and a half hours and manages somehow to encompass just about every conceivable human emotion, love, fear, wrath, desperation, madness and hope without ever losing its focus on Lincoln and his struggles immediately after reelection in 1865 to enact the thirteenth amendment granting citizenship to all people born in the United States, in effect ending slavery.

Lincoln is Spielberg's best movies since Munich and another successful collaboration with the gifted playwright Tony Kushner. The cascade of redundant endings complicates labeling it the 'best' movie of 2012. It's very, very good. It is certainly one of Spielberg's most successful attempts to fuse his themes of war, justice, politics, and the repercussions of slavery. 

Spielberg is able, when he allows himself, to construct very disturbing set-pieces. I'm not the only movie fan to notice this, but it's the one bracing quality that prevents him from trailing off into mawkish obscurity. The casual execution of Jewish concentration workers in Schinlder's List. The inhuman slaughter at the beaches of Normandy. The vaporization of an entire New Jersey city by fog horn wielding tripods. Spielberg had never escaped the clutches of a particular story he's been telling since the beginning: the chase. The glassy eyed 'it,' (shark, demon truck, spider robots) versus the fragile, flawed family man. In Lincoln, the 'it' is slavery. And it's not something that is ever really seen, as such in the movie. Tad, Lincoln's youngest son, is mesmerized by a collection of slave photographs. Mary Lincoln's servant casually remarks she was "beaten by a shovel when he was younger than (Tad Lincoln). The President himself compares slavery to a whale (Melville's perhaps) that he's harpooned but hasn't yet dispatched.

Set against the dismal implacable foe of ancient human fears and hatreds is hope. Lincoln knows that he has used trickery and conveniences to end slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation. He words carry war-time weight, and with the war nearing its inevitable end, he knows that a stronger measure is required or the Union would slip once more into slavery. Hence the amendment. He marshals his forces much, in a later scene, as he confers with his Secretaries of War. A trio of ethically untroubled bribery experts sets upon the twenty or so Democratic representatives the president needs for the amendment to pass. Some of the best scenes of the movie revolve around these three approaching, coaxing, and fleeing prospective marks. If this sounds close to a description of the at time tawdry and discouraging debates of the past four years, I leave you to decide.

But where the movie really soars is with Lincoln. Daniel Day Lewis is one of my favorite all-time actors and the quavering, mid-west tenor of his voice he summons for the folksy philosopher that was our 16th president is mesmerizing. The only thing I've seen comparable to it is the joy I got watching the West Wing and seeing Martin Sheen's Bartlett leave a room after leveling some hapless demagogue. 

So, see this movie. If you have kids, take them to the movie. There are scenes of gory battle and a few colorful oaths. If you have a significant other who hates historicals, take them too. Go see this movie if you hate politics, hate war and hate talk about either. This is a movie about this country; what we are about - both what we aspire to be and what we are.
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