Spielberg Movie Shows Another Facet Of The Lincoln Legend


Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic

Academy Award winning director Stephen Spielberg, and Pulitzer Prize winning author/playwright Tony Kushner, along with Hollywood actor Daniel Day Lewis, have teamed up to bring the myth and legend of Abraham Lincoln, America’s sixteenth president into sharper and a much narrower focus than any movie has done before.

It’s not easy rewriting “accepted historical facts” about an individual who is revered the world over.  Cliché’s, however, have a way of hardening over time; becoming the accepted “truth”.  The Lincoln story, over the years, has usually covered his life set against the tumult and backdrop of the Civil War, with over 600,000 dead as its legacy, and its many assassination conspiracy theories as plot sources for books, plays, and movies.

   To his credit, screenwriter Kushner eschews the obvious pathway and together with director Spielberg, have fashioned a brilliant and insightful script, illuminating the rough and tumble of 1860 politics, which eerily reflects the gridlock and entrenched positions of 2012 America.  It appears we haven’t learned very much over the last one hundred and fifty years about governance (except for a timeout during WW II).

The story covers only a short period in Lincoln’s presidency – the last four months of his life.  In Spielberg’s “Lincoln” the Great Emancipator, is brilliantly and intelligently played by English actor Daniel Day Lewis, who delivers one of the most poignant, and understated performances, practically guaranteeing a Best Actor Oscar nomination in the process (if not a win).  He morphs into the role of Lincoln with such ease and credibility one forgets we’re watching an actor playing a very familiar historical figure.  Lewis delivers a constant series of sublime cinema moments adding up to a stunning performance.

The core story issue of slavery and it’s abolition via the passage of the U.S. Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment, is the stuff of great drama, and the focus of Kushner’s script.  Also, he had quality help, in the form of Pulitzer Prize winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin, when it came time for background research on his Lincoln story.  Despite the controversy and seriousness of the issues.  Kushner still makes room for a little humor, allowing the politicians (all white males) to bluster and posture; generally making fools of themselves, in the process. The film is blessed with a plethora of talented actors not the least of which is, America’s favorite flying nun Sally Fields, who renders a fully developed political First Lady as Mary Todd Lincoln.  She may be a classic study of a woman struggling with depression, but she still remembers how to cut off the legs of a political opponent at a state ball.  Just ask Tommy Lee Jones, the target in her crosshairs, as congressman Thaddeus Stevens, the champion of the abolitionist cause.  His craggy countenance and irascible portrayal as Stevens just may bring him another Best Support Oscar nomination.

(Photo : DreamWorks II Distribution Co. ) A Screenshot from Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” featuring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role.

The film has over 145 speaking roles and the entire cast is filled with journeyman actors, stars, and newcomers who deliver very winning and indelible impressions.  David Strathairn as Secretary of State Seward brings a strong and intelligent performance to the president’s cause. It’s practically a co-starring role.  Hal Holbrook also renders a lasting impression as Preston Blair, a champion for a peace treaty between the warring factions.  James Spader, John Hawkes (who stars with Helen Hunt in the newly released film “The Sessions”), and Jackie Earle Haley have featured roles as the “gang of three”.  They’re charged with rounding up the necessary congressional votes in order to pass the president’s plan to end slavery via the Thirteenth Amendment.  And they are pretty creative and inventive in the way they go about their work.   And you thought the 2012 election was “rough and tumble, and down and dirty”. Their shenanigans, in part, are sort of the on-going comic-relief element in an otherwise somber and life altering period in the country’s history.  Also, Gloria Rueben brings a quiet dignity and grace to her performance as Elizabeth Keckley, a friend of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

Enough, however, cannot be said about the performance of Daniel Day Lewis.  His Lincoln portrayal will change your impressions of Abraham Lincoln, the man you thought you knew.  No matter one’s politics, the Spielberg/Kushner film continues to burnish the Lincoln legend and the mystique surrounding the Great Emancipator is still intact.  “Honest Abe” will still be “a man for the ages”.

“Lincoln” opened in southern California on Friday, November 16, 2012.  I attended the screening at the Regal Stadium Nine Theatre, in Palm Springs, CA.  The historical film is going to be a very formidable Oscar contending movie in many categories, come January 2013.  Don’t wait.  See it now.

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