LINCOLN: History in the Making

I haven’t liked a Steven Spielberg movie in decades. There are several reasons: first his need to telegraph emotion with the same John Williams score over and over again, his use of camera moves that seem forced upon the narrative, lack of character nuance and detail (Saving Private Ryan comes to mind), and visual cues that makes you feel like you’re stupid (the girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List, which was the only colored shot in an otherwise all black and white movie). In fact, his last film, War Horse, was such an affront to the material I nearly walked out.

But LINCOLN is something else altogether. Whether it was Tony Kushner’s literate screenplay, Daniel Day Lewis’ extraordinarily quiet and introspective performance, or the subject matter’s need for a quiet camera, Mr. Spielberg, for once, keeps the camera still and lets the viewer choose where to pay attention (which is usually on the actor within the frame because all of them are uniformly excellent). Even John Williams seems subdued by the proceedings: a piano flourish here, a few strings there.

I suspect, however, that it was Tony Kushner’s script that made Mr. Spielberg relax and let the words flow. The language is hyper-attenuated with tongue twisters – witness Tommy Lee Jone’s moments on the floor of the house, and in his study dressing down another Congressman, or how Daniel Day Lewis’ voice whispers a parable within directives to people working for him. Mr. Spielberg had no room to let his camera move. Literally. Practically all the action takes place in smoke-filled rooms: bedrooms, offices, carriages – even the Congress chambers feels over-crowded and stuffed with people and proceedings. And what a pleasure it is to be able to take a deep dive into the film and just listen.

History is an astounding thing to watch, and in the hands of masterful actors, there’s an eloquence that is profoundly moving. I found myself hanging on Daniel Day Lewis’ every utterance, and enjoying the bluster of Lee Pace’s dressing down of Tommy Lee Jones only to be rocked by this actor’s intelligence, demeanor and humanity. Sally Field is amazing to watch as Mrs. Lincoln – she vacillates between defeat and strength in a nanosecond – and you get to watch everything register on her face, and in her eyes because Mr. Spielberg is forced to be there to witness.

But, then maybe that’s Mr. Spielberg’s genius: to bring the viewer in as a witness to history being made, making you feel and understand what is at stake, and placing you where you need to be when you take sides in the real triumph and tragedy that is our democracy.

This film brings into sharp focus where our democracy is now over 150 years later: It is no less messy than it was in 1865. It is no less scary. When a young woman posts on Facebook, and tells people that she would not care whether our current President is assassinated, or kids at ‘Ole Miss rise up and burn signs and scream racial epithets, or a man drives by a polling place with a noose around our President’s neck. History is made with deep fights, discussions, and passions that run deep. LINCOLN serves to remind us that, first and foremost, we are a single nation, with a responsibility to freedom and our country’s ideals, whether one agrees with the person’s opinion across the aisle or not.

Daniel Day Lewis’ performance and that of most every other actor in the film, who carries Mr. Kushner’s words in their heart, perfectly embodies this turmoil – and it is a beautiful thing to watch.

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