DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Jaws, etc.)
SCREENPLAY: Tony Kushner
MY ANTICIPATION GOING IN: As movies are expensive, I have two general rules for seeing one in a theater (as opposed to waiting for it to come out on Netflix or whatnot).
1. Either I’m just impatient or …
2. It’s a big action movie that is best seen on the big screen.
Lincoln is the former. But this is one of those rare cases where you should go see it in the theater anyway, even if you aren’t impatient.
I’ve found that, most times in life, when somebody gives absolute full effort—when they’re really, really throwing themselves into the task at hand—it almost always turns out worthwhile. And here we have America’s best working director (Steven Spielberg, just ahead of Mr. Martin Scorsese) paired with the world’s greatest actor (Daniel Day-Lewis according to IMDb, and I’ll be damned if I’ll disagree with that assessment).
And both of them busted their ass on this project.
Imagine Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell at the foul line, sweat pouring off his goatee like rainwater from a bucket. That’s the kind of effort we got from Spielberg, Day-Lewis and screenwriter Tony Kushner. Then again, when you’re making a movie about of the most important human beings ever to tramp about on U.S. soil, you’re pretty much obliged to do so.
BASIC PLOT: The great sportswriter Dan Jenkins preached that a good columnist doesn’t write about everything that happened in a particular game. No, he said, every game has a key moment, a turning point. A columnist must identify it and then kick it to death.
That’s the approach Spielberg took with Lincoln.
Spielberg eschewed the full-fledged biopic route and instead focused on the final four months of Lincoln’s life, precisely his drive to pass the 13th Amendment. In doing so he was able to reveal the nuances of Lincoln the man: his love of stories to the point of exasperation to some; his complete lack of pretense, treating enlisted soldiers as intellectual equals; his deep melancholy over the death of his 11-year old son Willie; his doting love for his young surviving son Tad; his temper in the face of idiocy; his patience with Mary Todd Lincoln’s emotional outbursts; his big-picture appreciation for the task before him; and his own questions about life and God.
In one memorable scene, Lincoln asks a young telegraph operator, “Do you think we choose to be born? Or are we fitted to the times we’re born to?”
You can just see the young kid going, “uhhhh….you’re the President of the United States. What are you asking ME for?”
In focusing on these four crucial months, this movie, essentially, is about one man’s conviction of purpose in the face of death and more death.
WHAT I’LL REMEMBER: For me, the sight of Lincoln in his top hat ambling down the hallway in his slow, bowlegged way, leaving the White House for the last time, on his way to Ford’s Theater. Hell yeah my eyes watered up and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
BEST LINES: Lincoln, relating a quote by Ethan Allen: “There is nothing that will make an Englishman shit so quick as the sight of General Washington.”
William Seward to Lincoln after one of his yarns: “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
WHAT WORKED BEST: Fabulous acting performances across the board; hardscrabble realism capturing the feel of the times. There’s a great scene near the climax when Lincoln’s vote-swaying lobbyists/henchmen must deliver him a note. Since there are no cellphones or taxis, the henchmen literally run from the Capitol to the White House to give Lincoln a balled-up, hand-scribbled note.
But the coolest thing, to me, was being able to envision what Abraham Lincoln must have been like in real life. Because like the dinosaurs, we don’t know what he sounded like or how he moved around. All we get are some old scratchy black-and-white photos—none of them ever show him smiling with his teeth, ever notice that? So he seems like some mystical, larger-than-life being.
Here’s the thing: Tommy Lee Jones was terrific. But I knew it was Tommy Lee Jones playing Thaddeus Stevens. With Lincoln, you don’t ever think of Daniel Day-Lewis the actor. As Dan Jenkins would say, you believe it’s Lincoln his ownself. We see Lincoln huddled in a shawl, refilling his coffee mug, telling a story to his cabinet; little scenes like that made the movie worthwhile to me.
WHAT THE …? The always-excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, Looper) plays to cliché as the son who wants to go to war, against his father’s wishes, to prove himself. Though I didn’t expect old Abe to actually slap his boy across the face, the predictable confrontation was a little bit beneath this movie.
BUMMERS: I was kind of hoping for some classic Spielberg-style Civil War gore. I mean, our hero Steven Spielberg came through in the opening scene of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, filming the greatest war battle of all time (bullets buzzing like hornets, plowing through helmets like butter, abdomens ripped open, guts hanging out, gross as shit. I mean Spielberg went to such lengths to get realism that he used real amputees and human hair on the dummies). So you figure, Civil War, that deal was super gory, with big-ass cannonballs flying through the air taking off heads and limbs, Spielberg is going to really be able portray the brutality of it and the toll it was taking on Lincoln.
We got a taste of battle early, the hand-to-hand combat, a muddy boot smashing a man’s face into the muck, drowning him, but it was nothing like the taking of Normandy’s Omaha Beach. The closest we get is a memorable scene when Robert Todd Lincoln follows a squeaky cart leaking blood and is shocked by what it carries.
So I suppose I’ll have to wait for someone to give us a Spielbergian treatment of the Civil War—the Battle of Gettsyburg, to be precise. I know, it’s not going to happen; he would’ve done that by now. My only hope is that there’s an HBO spinoff, much like Band of Brothers sort of spun off the idea of Saving Private Ryan. I’d love to see miniseries examining the brutal nature of the Civil War, and more of Lincoln. With all those Civil War buffs out there, I think that might just land a viewer or two.
ITS PLACE IN TIME: If ever a movie is girded to stand the test of time, it’s this one. There are no special effects to make look outdated, and hell, it’s a historical movie anyway.
WILL YOU LIKE IT? Warning, this is not a “Let’s slam some beers first” movie. It’s what you call one of them “artistic” films, with very little action and lots of talking. (And the talking is kind of old-timey and hard to follow at times.) Almost every scene takes place in parlors and meeting rooms and creaky basements and darkened bedrooms and, prominently, the United States Capitol House Chamber.
In that regard it’s tailor-made for Netflix or whatnot, in the quiet of your home, where you can quickly rewind a conversation you can’t quite follow. Just don’t queue it up if you haven’t had much sleep.