Monday, November 12, 2012

Lincoln: imperfect, but with a performance that will be talked about for decades to come

In any kind of profession, whether it'd be a sport or in technology or in the movies, there's always that once-in-a-generation kind of person that transcends their field and everyone else has to catch up to them in terms of greatness. In the movie business, when it comes to acting, on the female side it's currently Meryl Streep; on the male side, it's Daniel Day-Lewis without a doubt. Daniel Day-Lewis already has two Oscars under his belt and an actor winning three Oscars for Best Actor... that just doesn't happen. But it will come this February and DDL deserves it. This is coming from someone who loved Joaquin Phoenix in The Master and thought that was an amazing performance, but Daniel Day-Lewis is captivating and revelatory in ways he hasn't been before.

You may think you've figured him out. He won his first Oscar for My Left Foot which featured a brave performance of a man with cerebral palsy. It was a daring performance, but actors who play a person with disabilities will always have that stigma. Was it "easier" to win acclaim because they were portraying a character with a disability? It falls in line with evaluations of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, etc.

His second Oscar was for the role of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. He also garnered acclaim for his villainous role in Gangs of New York. Both characters were evil, vile, histrionic on occasion. Both films allowed DDL to explore these characters, embody them, and he was able to really go out there because PT Anderson and Scorsese trusted his talent.

But damn, you think you know a DDL performance and then you see him in Lincoln and he reveals all these other qualities to you that you overlooked in the past. Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't play Abraham Lincoln, he is Abraham Lincoln. He looks so much like him, he talks the way you would imagine he'd talk, the actions, the movement, all of that. And as far as histrionics are concerned, it's not really there. He's not trying to steal the scene as Abe Lincoln, he just is him. He is him, for crying out loud. I don't think I've ever seen an actor capture a real person that closely before. It was like watching a digital recreation and simulation of exactly what you think Abraham Lincoln would be like. Of course, aside from pictures, we never had much else to go by but DDL helps fill in the necessary gaps. You can finally say upon watching, "ah, so that's what he was like." It's just the perfect embodiment.

Watching Daniel Day-Lewis in the first few minutes gave me goosebumps. You got a sense of it in early set photos, the trailers, and the poster, but you can't really understand until you finally see him as the 16th President of the USA. It brought out the history geek I never knew I had inside me. I was captivated from the very start.

Luckily, Daniel Day-Lewis gets great help with an amazing ensemble cast and quite possibly the best use of makeup and costume design in recent memory. Steven Speilberg's crew really outdo themselves here and the look he got with his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, is extraordinary. It's not that the images are particularly beautiful, it just looks right. There aren't many films that have been set in this particular era so to watch this film, it's really something seeing all these Civil War-era characters come to life in this way.

And about that ensemble cast, we're talking about Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eldest son Robert, Tommy Lee Jones as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as Sec. of State William Seward, Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate State Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, Mad Men's Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, and rounding out the cast is memorable turns from James Spader, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, Lee Pace, and Bruce McGill. It really is a who's who of some of the finest character actors from both the US and the UK. And it's never distracting, it actually elevates the film seeing so many fine actors play all these characters, it adds another element to it.

Steven Spielberg seemed to have been falling into his own trap as of late. While I enjoyed The Adventures of Tintin very much, I didn't enjoy War Horse at all and found the style of it to be too consuming and enveloping. It was drenched in this precious, Disney-like, "feel good" style that I rejected to and both films kinda played to Spielberg's sensibilities. What's great about Lincoln is that it's almost uncompromising in its insistence that it remains as realistic as possibly can be about the lengths President Lincoln had to go through to get the 13th Amendment passed. There are other aspects of the film that may not come across as naturally and as seamlessly like with Robert Lincoln trying to convince his father to let him fight in the war. But I give the film, and Spielberg, props because it may feel a bit too much like a history lesson at times, it's still an important history lesson and the actors elevate it and it's dramatized in a way where it's entertaining but not insulting.

Even in the moments where we see the 13th Amendment is about to be passed, it may have a bit of that old traditional Hollywood feel-good moment to it, but at this point, we've gotten to know everyone and the film really took its time to explore the issues with depth and consideration and so it felt important. When the amendment is passed, nothing about those moments feel false and by the time we see Thaddeus Stevens return to his home and we see him for who he really is, it adds an emotional and personal element to the proceedings that is necessary and welcoming.

The film, however, does kind of fall into a trap of treating all these events too much like "lessons in history" than as a part of a story or a narrative. While the passing of the 13th Amendment storyline is a definite dramatic highlight, I feel like almost too much time was spent on it and we only got snippets of what it was like at the end of the Civil War. We only see the VP of the Confederate States two or three times, we don't really get to see many others from the other side. So when it goes into those areas, it feels like it does so because the filmmakers felt they had to. Obviously, it all fits into the narrative of the time, but not necessarily in the movie itself.

This is also the case when we delve a little bit, but not too much, into Lincoln's personal life. While I actually think the stuff between him and Mary Todd was very well-done, the scenes with Lincoln's eldest son Robert Lincoln felt too much like contrived drama. Again, there's no doubting that there must've been a conflict there, but the way it plays out just doesn't come off as naturally and as strong as the central storyline of the passing of the 13th Amendment.

And to that, it was great to see all the little political inner workings as they try to get the amendment passed. I thought it was very insightful to see how the Secretary of State and the President work with party operatives and Representatives in order to get things done. It was also great to see what the House of Representatives may have been like in a time long before C-Span, a lot of name-calling and finger pointing. They were contentious times, much like they are now, and it's interesting to see how there's a lot about American politics that has not changed and it may never change.

In the end, I was torn with how they treated the assassination. I was glad they did not over-dramatize it, but it almost felt like they were having a tough time figuring out how to show it. When it plays out in the film, it's rather anti-climactic. I don't think anyone in the audience will exactly be waiting and hoping to watch Lincoln get shot in the head, but still, Lincoln kinda ends with a whimper instead of a bang (no pun intended).

The film ultimately lives and dies on Daniel Day-Lewis's performance and it's something I can't help but go back to. If Daniel Day-Lewis didn't fully capture and embody Lincoln, this may have gone a completely different path. It would've been a lesser movie, flat out. I fully expect Daniel Day-Lewis to be rewarded for his performance here. Not many actors get the chance to be rewarded as often as he has been in his career, but when a once-in-a-generation actor plays a once-in-a-generation historical figure, it's only logical that it would play out as perfectly as it has here.

Grade: A-

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