Monday, November 19, 2012

With Malice Toward None . . .

I saw Lincoln on Friday night.

Immediately on leaving the theatre, I made three phone calls: first to my sister. I gushed and cried. Then to my best friend B. I gushed and cried. Then to my mom. Ditto. It was after 10pm Chicago-time, but I did not hesitate to make any of these phone calls. I think I would have burst if I hadn't been able to speak to someone after that experience, and even after three calls I was still full of feeling.

We all know who Abraham Lincoln was, and the immense impact he had on the history and shaping of this country. And, I think most reading this review have seen more than one film about some historical figure, be it Napoleon or Kennedy or even Jesus Christ. Biopics tend to treat their subjects as larger-than-life, and we sit in awe as the events of history play out before us, the figure portrayed by some actor we recognize and try to forget in the guise of someone we've read about. Beloved historical figures are often treated as nearly god-like in films about them. We leave the theatre after these films with the sense of having seen the deeds of someone great, while not truly feeling any nearer that person.

Lincoln is not that film.

I can honestly say that I have never seen a biopic that made me feel more, personally, for the subject than this one. The Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln, are already deeply personal to me for obvious reasons, and so I expected to feel some emotional stake in the events onscreen. But, what Spielberg has managed to do is to put the viewer smack in the center of the room with the man. You cannot sit and watch. You must join in. Lincoln is not grandiose; he is a man, an extraordinary man, yes, but a man: funny, complicated, kind, fiercely intelligent, even gently conniving. Rarely have I ever liked a figure on film as much as I personally did by the end; here was a man I wanted to know, to sit with on a porch and talk with. Here was a man who made others better simply by being present. The tallest man in the room, always.

To compliment the film fully, I cannot just compliment Spielberg, naturally. I must talk about the incredible cast. Every single person brings their A-game, even those you barely see, even soldiers who do not get a name, or secretaries who handle his letters. Day-Lewis gives a performance so striking in its natural flow that I never, for one moment, saw him onscreen. I saw Lincoln. He is completely and utterly the man, and if he does not win the Oscar this year, good God, I can't think who might beat him. Sally Field plays Mary Todd with a barely contained intensity; not madness, but such heart-breaking misery at times that it was difficult to watch. She is always on edge without ever seeming to lurch into expected characature. Tommy Lee Jones is powerful, hilarious, and deserves a supporting actor nod for his turn as Thaddeus Stevens, so instrumental in the passing of the 13th Amendment. And David Strathairn deserves a nod as well for his understated and controlled portrayal of Lincoln's Secretary of State Seward, who is possibly the only man who can argue any opposing point with the President while still so clearly showing how he respects and loves the man. There are scores of others in the film who play meaningful and important roles and who I could mention here, but this review is too long already.

A few words on the superior costuming by Joanna Johnston: it is beautiful and incredibly specific; I watched the entire film with a critical eye, and I couldn't find a single flaw. Mary Todd Lincoln's dresses in particular were superb, even though I personally would never wear them. And, the men . . .! I cannot say enough. Flawless, right down to Stevens' horrible wig.

Everyone knows how Lincoln's story ends, with a fateful trip to Ford's Theatre. As the film reached that point, I felt my chest seize and a lump in my throat, and I began to cry unashamedly as the camera follows him out of the White House for the final time. This was not just a historical figure I had read about. Not even a figure I had seen portrayed by a friend or intereacted with. This was someone I suddenly felt as though I knew. I felt for the first time the depth of the country's loss, because it felt like my loss. Spielberg invited me into this man's life for a few weeks, and in the end I felt just how short a time that was. I wish I could adequately put it into words, but that is the best I can do.

See Lincoln. Even if you think you know the history and nothing can surprise you, I promise, you're wrong. You will be moved, and, if you're anything like me, you might be a little changed too.

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