Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ delivers

by Kenneth Leonard

Courtesy Dreamworks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox

There was a time when Steven Spielberg’s movies were the biggest entertainment events of the year. Blockbusters such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park” and “Saving Private Ryan,” served to shape and define American expectations of the movies.

Spielberg’s work unquestionably paved the way for increasingly advanced effects-driven movies following his example, culminating in Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers,” which arguably marked the epic zenith of the pop culture arc Spielberg began with the original summer block-buster: “Jaws.”

One thing I noticed when exiting the screening of “Lincoln” was how virtually all of the peo- ple who had just seen the movie had markedly different opinions of the film, depending on their ages. The under-30 crowd wasn’t too crazy about the film, while the older audience appreciated it. I couldn’t help but wonder if Spielberg indirectly sabotaged himself by assisting in shorten- ing the collective attention spans of American consumers by making action-packed blockbusters for the last 30 years.

Because of the types of films we’re used to, American audi- ences may not be prepared for “Lincoln,” but I found the film to be thoroughly enjoyable. To me, it was a breath of fresh air—a fresh departure from the typical effects-driven, loud mov- ies dominating contemporary cinema. I was admittedly excited about this movie heading into it. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the heavy hitting combo of über-director Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis in the titular role of Abraham Lincoln.

I was rewarded with a deliberately paced, dialogue-driven, nuanced period piece unlike any- thing else in theaters in recent memory.

Day-Lewis portrays the Great Emancipator as a weary man, broken down by the strain of being president during the Civil War. Lincoln’s patience and hu- mor are on full display here and Day-Lewis does a stellar job making an American icon relat- able as a vulnerable flesh-and- blood human being who was coping with immense emotional stress. Day-Lewis masterfully captures Lincoln’s essence during extended periods without dialogue, and he looks uncannily similar to the actual Lincoln because of a combination of excellent makeup and his exceptional acting abilities. Unfortunately, one decision Day-Lewis made in his characterization of Lincoln frustrated this reviewer. I must preface my diatribe with an explanation. Nobody knows what Lincoln’s voice sounded like. This truth grants actors complete freedom in their vocal depiction of him, so it was confusing when Day-Lewis opened his mouth and a voice not unlike an aged Derek Zoolander proceeded from his lips. The dialogue in the movie is incred- ibly sharp, but I found the vocal affectation Day-Lewis chose to be distracting, even though crit- ics say it is a more historically accurate portrayal of his voice than previous film incarnations of the president. My critique of his performance stops there, and every other aspect of his Lincoln was truly outstanding.

“Lincoln” benefitted tremendously from an all-star support- ing cast, including Sally Field as the tormented, often hysterical first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward and James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson as a trio of lobbyists who helped push the 13th Amendment through a fractured and contentious U.S. Congress. Jackie Earle Haley and “Mad Men” star Jared Harris have memorable cameos as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and Union General Ulysses S. Grant, as well.

Spielberg previously collabo- rated with playwright Tony Kushner on the critically ac- claimed “Munich” and, once again, Kushner provided Spielberg with a memorable screen- play, which he adapted from his- torian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling “Team of Rivals.” Goodwin offers a unique per- spective on Lincoln’s presidency, bypassing the popular consensus of Lincoln as a type of American saint and featuring multiple fac- ets of Lincoln’s character, which are on full display in Spielberg’s film. Lincoln cycles through frustration, anger, humor, lone- liness and quiet desperation as he crusades against the rigidity of American opinion against the abolition of slavery.

Lincoln’s use of humor as a coping mechanism is featured throughout the film, and the au- dience comes to know Lincoln as a witty Garrison Keillor-esque storyteller, as opposed to the stoic luminary often personified in popular culture.

So, “Abraham Lincoln: Vam- pire Hunter” this was not and rightfully so. In several ways, this “Lincoln” demonstrated much greater strength and depth of character than his vampire-slaying predecessor this year and he was much funnier. This is a Lincoln with a very real heart, worn prominently on his sleeve; and as moviegoers we are fortu- nate to get a small reprieve from typical, formulaic Hollywood schlock while enjoying an intimate look at an authentic American hero’s story.