Monday, December 3, 2012

Movie with Abe: Lincoln

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Released November 9, 2012

Steven Spielberg is very good at making blockbusters and epics. In a career spanning over fifty years, Spielberg has been involved with severable memorable science fiction series and, on rarer occasions, tackled more serious projects. Following last year’s sweeping “War Horse” and inventive “The Adventures of Tintin,” Spielberg is back with a biographical film of immense proportions, chronicling a trying time in the life of what may be the most well-remembered President of the United States. “Lincoln” is hardly his strongest film, possessing many elements of a great movie but ultimately falling short of becoming a true Spielberg classic.

Playing the film’s title character is British actor Daniel Day-Lewis, known for the extreme enthusiasm with which he throws himself into his infrequent and carefully-selected roles. After astounding turns in “Gangs of New York” in 2002 and “There Will Be Blood” in 2007, Day-Lewis returns with another powerhouse performance. Like Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” Day-Lewis’ turn is an exercise in mimicry, designed to capture the mindset and mannerisms of a famed historical figure. In that respect, Day-Lewis delivers commendably, and he commands the film in the same way that his character commands the nation’s respect and admiration, even in difficult and divisive times.

Day-Lewis is accompanied by one other Brit, Jared Harris, who also portrays an American President, then-General Ulysses S. Grant. The rest of the film is populated with just about every American actor working today, all disguised in period hairstyling and cast as political players in the path to the passage of the thirteenth amendment, which banned slavery. Some put little effort into making their characters feel relevant for the era, while others, such as Lee Pace, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bruce McGill, Jackie Earle Haley, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, stand out among the ensemble. Tommy Lee Jones steals all of his scenes, and much of the film, as hard-headed abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, weaving his signature sarcasm into a character with a matching reputation. Sally Field is less impressive in the other major female role, handing in an overdone interpretation of Mary Todd Lincoln.

With any portrait of a man with a storied history, important decisions must be made in terms of what parts of his life should be emphasized. In this case, however, the film’s timeline is isolated to the run-up to the passage of the thirteenth amendment, including several events before and after but otherwise focusing tightly on Lincoln’s passion for that particular cause. A fuller picture of Lincoln’s earlier political career might have been more fulfilling and would certainly have been engaging. “Lincoln” does still have its moments, and though it doesn’t move quickly, its 150-minute running time doesn’t feel too excessive.


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