So many people have asked what I thought about the new film, Lincoln, that I decided to post my response here, having seen it last night.
The title, of course, is misleading, tending to invoke a biography. But the movie opens in 1865 near the very end of the Civil War, Lincoln newly re-elected, and the South obviously in its death throes.
Daniel Day Lewis is magnificent, a certain Oscar winner, and confirms his place as the premier male actor of current times. On a contemporary basis, I could think of only one equal (answer at the end of this review) and historically I have to go back to a young Brando.
Lewis’s speech, solemnity, and stride seem to me to be unerring. He portrays a giant in history, a man who hated slaughter but enabled it, who defeated competitors but then embraced them, who made people both wince and laugh through tense times with apocryphal stories. There is a scene where Lincoln rides a horse ahead of a small military escort through the aftermath of the carnage at Petersburg (which led to the evacuation of Richmond), silent, often seen only from the shoulders up, riding through piles of corpses. It is a scene that is so stunning there wasn’t a sound in the theater—not a cough, not a whisper, not a cell phone.
There are difficulties, however, with the film. The opening 15 minutes are so contrived that they are almost laughable. The writers have found a way to have the Gettysburg Address read and Lincoln talk to some black troops that is absurd. The film also should have ended 20 minutes earlier, as we watch Lincoln’s awkward gait take him from a meeting at the White House to his fate at Ford’s Theater. Instead, in a hurried but interminable end we watch an overview of Lincoln’s death, with Stanton uttering the famous epitaph, “Now he belongs to the ages,” as if cued by the director in a high school play with extras standing around in stoney silence.
There are also superfluous scenes, apparently present because the writers or director wanted to shoot them, because they don’t move the story along. For example, the silent adieu of Lee and Grant after Appomattox was accurately depicted and quite well done, but was completely unnecessary. The entire move could have been reduced by 45 minutes, all told. (General Grant [Jared Harris] was played to taciturn perfection throughout the film, an almost casual, no-nonsense soldier. Lincoln tells him at one point, “You and I enabled each other to do horrible things.”)
Which brings me to a major flaw (I only spotted one historical inaccuracy, and the work is based on the brilliant historian Doris Kearn Goodwin’s book). There are so many well-known television and film actors in this production—in roles in which there is no need for such star power demonstration—that I quickly became distracted trying to identify them and the last role I saw them in. Some had very small screen time, but they were there as if they didn’t want to miss the experience or the producers were being paid commission on how many recognizable actors could be assembled.
The only one who made sense, despite his popularity, was Tommy Lee Jones playing the firebrand radical Thaddeus Stevens. Jones’s face, these days, makes Mount Rushmore seem as if it recently had cosmetic surgery by comparison. Jones underplayed his role perfectly with nuance and style. It’s hard to be in the same frame with Daniel Day Lewis. Most people were acting. Lewis was doing something else.
© Alan Weiss 2012