Movie review: Well-acted 'Lincoln' suffers from heavy-handed direction

Published: Friday, Nov. 16, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 15TICKET
Last Modified: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 - 12:03 pm

You need not think about how to feel while watching "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's well-acted but heavy-handed take on a pivotal moment in U.S. history.

The movie always tells you.

John Williams' score indicates when to be emotionally stirred by a serious scene and when to be delighted by a comic aside. Characters offer long looks full of portent that preview big developments.

"Lincoln" is not a biography of the 16th president. The film is devoted almost entirely to the political fight to pass what would become the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

But rather than commit to a film about a bunch of politicians sitting around talking, director Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner ("Angels in America," "Munich") try to enliven by emphasizing and underlining.

The politicians' talk, of how to persuade Lincoln's fellow Republicans to put the proposed amendment ahead of an end to the Civil War and how to coax lame-duck Democrats to side with Lincoln, will fascinate anyone with a hint of wonk. It's interesting enough to consider how different the two big parties were 150 years ago.

But the ever-populist Spielberg seems worried that other viewers – the ones who never considered poli-sci as a major – won't get it. So he telegraphs key moments, uses three scenes to get a point across when one would do and inserts "Apple Dumpling Gang" hijinks into a sequence depicting moments of great importance to the nation, African Americans and humanity in general.

A lack of subtlety is not new for Spielberg. It's just easier to notice musical and emotional cues in a movie in which most of the visual stimulation comes from the variations in facial hair on actors playing 1860s legislators.

Day-Lewis, who plays Lincoln, is not known for his subtlety, either. He disappears into roles, sure. But what you remember are the outsize bits: the maniacal gleam in Bill the Butcher's eyes in "Gangs of New York," the milkshake speech in "There Will Be Blood."

As Lincoln, though, Day–Lewis chooses calm, steadiness and gentle humor. His voice, in playing a master orator, is far less booming than it was in "Gangs" or "Blood." The voice is higher, reedier, to match accounts of what Lincoln's voice sounded like.

Day-Lewis makes the viewer want to come to him, to listen closely as Lincoln tells his jokes and stories. His Lincoln is a hands-on politician and boss, offering reassuring shoulder squeezes to the young men on his White House staff and regaling Cabinet members with folksy tales of his time as a country lawyer.

This Lincoln, though exceptionally likable, also is almost always a politician. Making people sit and listen to your stories is its own form of control.

Day-Lewis does not just capture Lincoln (or at least a highly appealing version of him) but also a quality shared by many U.S. presidents, regardless of party or era. It's that conviction that he knows the right course, and that the means of pursuing that course always are justified, even if some might find them unsavory.

Day-Lewis embodies that unwavering conviction, a trait that is rare but necessary to get through a job filled with endless scrutiny and opposition and which ages its holders unnaturally quickly.

In "Lincoln," Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), who knows a thing or two about premature aging, points out that Lincoln has aged considerably in a few years. At that moment, the 55-year-old Day-Lewis looks not just uncannily like Lincoln but far older than 56, the age at which the president was assassinated.

Day-Lewis' portrayal of Lincoln as a less-than-towering figure provides a nice foundation for bigger performances around him.

Tommy Lee Jones, so internal and tight-lipped in recent performances, goes passionate and theatrical as Thaddeus Stevens, the abolitionist Pennsylvania representative and sometime Lincoln antagonist. The idea of any political compromise regarding human beings' innate right to freedom makes Stevens livid.

As first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field taps her well-developed expertise for playing troubled women. Field plays Mary Todd, who is plagued by headaches, the death of her son Willie, and possibly (as some historians suggest) bipolar disorder, as someone who knows she needs to be "managed" and hates it.

Field gives her character fierce intelligence and awareness. Acting crazy is one thing. Knowing you are acting crazy and being unable to stop it is unbearable.

The president and first lady share a few prickly moments in "Lincoln," but the overriding feeling arising in scenes with Field and Day-Lewis is of an abiding loyalty that runs both ways.

In "Lincoln," Mary Todd is witness, from the gallery, to the political wrangling and arguments regarding the proposed anti-slavery amendment in the House of Representatives.

The House, as depicted in "Lincoln," was then a British Parliament-style cauldron of stump speeches, accusations, insults and cheers.

Spielberg and Kushner lend the House scenes so much vigor that "Lincoln" comes fully alive for about half an hour. Then Spielberg tacks on three addenda, and thus dissipates the good will that has developed on both sides of the movie-theater aisle.


LINCOLN

★ ★ 1/2

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Gloria Reuben

Director: Steven Spielberg

150 minutes

PG-13 (an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language)

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Read more articles by Carla Meyer



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