A biopic can easily fall into the trap of resorting to scenes appealing to what is believed to be our collective consciousness. Essentially a rerun of all the vignettes we’ve learned, profiles we’ve read, and quotes. In the case of Lincoln, who among us doesn’t have a picture of the tall, rather strange looking man staring straight into the camera, wearing a face so weathered it seems to depict all the storms of time? Most of us, if not all of us, have a soft spot for Lincoln. His demeanor exemplified someone who carried the weight of the nation on his shoulders. The sadness he wore on that deeply lined face, even when he was smiling, speaks of many things–maybe the little sadness that lives in all of us.
Lincoln doesn’t fall prey to rehashing what we remember from high school, quite the contrary. We see a more personable Lincoln, a more believable one even. A man who gets angry, argues with his wife, pounds his fist on the table, and veers in the direction of telling funny stories when everyone around him wants to stay on topic and move forward in the discussion at hand.
Based in part on A Team of Rivals, the Pulitzer prize-winning book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the movie is beautiful to watch. Rich in texture, it evokes the time we’ve seen represented in photos from our history books and television documentaries. Some moments on film seem to be a photograph, in fact, forever etched in our memories. Not necessarily one we’ve already seen, but one that could very likely be part of the collection in a Lincoln family photo album. One of these is Lincoln, seated in a rocking chair with son Todd in his lap. The room is dark, the scene is quiet. And there we see Lincoln, with his head hanging low as is so customary in so many of those old photographs. A tired soul, stealing a moment from his political woes to enjoy the warmth of his young son.
Lincoln focuses on the passing of the 13th Amendment–Lincoln’s dogged determination to get it passed amidst the opposition, the recommendations of and discussions with his cabinet, as well as the forcefulness of Lincoln’s wife in her personal and political demands of her husband.
We see a bit of Lincoln as a family man-with a glimpse of his adoration of his young son Todd, a rather troubled relationship with his older son Robert, and the tumultuous aspects of his relationship with Mary, who is depicted as emotionally and even mentally unstable.
Most striking in the cast is Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. His impeccable acting entirely erases the fact that he is acting. Completely adhering to Stanislavki’s direction that an actor must love the role in himself, rather than himself in the role–Lewis simply is Lincoln. And if we ever have loved the man in our imaginations, we love him all the more now. Because Lewis’ depiction gives him life. And we are able to love something temporal as opposed to a fleeting image from history.
Also astonishing is Sally Field’s interpretation of Mary Lincoln. She brings a depth to her role that is often painful, it’s so real. Her portrayal is achingly raw. She is as frail as she is a tyrant. Both Field and Day-Lewis will undoubtedly be nominated for Oscars. Look for a stellar performance by Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens. Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers an excellent performance as Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert.
But for all its merits, Lincoln feels disjointed. This is at least partly due to the frequent and often tiresome use of narrative to fill in the blanks. Thinking back to Kevin Burns’ series on the Civil War, presented over a period of several weeks and comprising hours and hours of taped interviews, photos, letters narrated, etc. –we realize that Burns had plenty of time and a variety of ways to give us a vivid and fascinating sense of the period and the events that transpired. But Lincoln is only 2 1/2 hours long. Perhaps the task at hand for screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) was insurmountable–issues and people too numerous and complex for such a narrow slice to be cohesive. Kushner too often leaves us in the dark–with people we don’t know saying things we don’t quite understand and nuances that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. We don’t know who the various members of Lincoln’s cabinet are, for instance. Indeed, perhaps we need to read Goodwin’s Team of Rivals to find out.
The score by John Williams isn’t memorable, which could be interpreted as a good thing–i.e. rather than stealing focus from the events of the movie, it surreptitiously lives in the background supporting them. But again, thinking back to Burns’ use of period music for his series, perhaps Lincoln would have been more interesting with these songs woven into the score, or at least as inspiration for an original one.
Some of the relationships were hardly depicted or presented in a confusing manner. It wasn’t clear what Lincoln’s relationship with his son Robert was. The long-winded conversations among the cabinet members for nearly the first half of the movie left the audience wondering who was saying what and a bit confused, if not bored.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Lincoln certainly deserves to be seen and will no doubt draw considerable attention come Oscar time. It’s a movie about a heart-rending time in American history–when the nation was split, one side fighting to make law that everyone is created equal, and others fighting to keep it from becoming so. And both sides willing to die for what they believed. One side desiring change, the other desiring life to remain the same. With familiar quotes resounding in Lincoln–like the one about two things being equal to the same thing are equal to each other–the truths in Lincoln give us much to think about all these years later–when factions in America are at odds with each other and we’re striving to move forward.
A San Francisco Bay Area writer, Francine has written for a range of corporate clients and publications–from Autodesk to Cycle California. She conceived and compiled the content for vinOrganica California, a mobile app guide to California wineries that make their wines from organically grown grapes. The app is available for purchase on the iTunes store and you can learn more about it at www.vinorganica.com. Francine created the Tofu Yu blog (tofuyu2.blogspot.com) and continues to post articles about food and health there. When she’s not writing, Francine enjoys swimming, hiking, yoga, and photography.