Lincoln (USA 2012) – The Oscar Favorite!
Nominated for 12 Oscars, 10 BAFTAs, winner of one Golden Globe for best dramatic actor for Daniel Day Lewis, as well as a further 15 wins and 59 nominations in lesser film festivals far and wide, LINCOLN seems set to clean up as the best picture all round for 2012.
Certainly the motion picture of the year for US audiences, who are prone to glorify their own national heroes, real or imagined. Lincoln, however, appears to have been as real as they come, representing the ultimate personification of the American Dream: a straightforward, no-nonsense man of the people from the farmlands of the mid-West – as opposed to a wealthy, upper-class landowner. An avid reader, he was self-taught with less than a year of formal education, later working his way through law school. What he lacked in social graces, he compensated with outstanding intelligence, strong principles, wry humor, and a sardonic understanding of human nature. All powerfully portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, who seems to have slipped into Lincoln’s skin for the role.
Based on only a small section of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”, the film focuses on the final months of the president’s life, which include passage of the 13th Amendment and the ultimate abolition of slavery, the surrender of the South – thus ending the Civil War – and his subsequent assassination. A lot to pack into one movie, you’ll agree, even in one as long as this. No time is wasted on establishing a back-story, either. The film begins in the midst of harrowing events, in 1865, four years into the Civil War, Lincoln recently elected to serve his second presidential term.
Portrayal of the nation’s capitol almost has a Wild West ambience, Spielberg’s cinematographer Janusz Kaminski flooding the frames with sepia color and muted lighting for the interiors. Congress and the Senate appear to be less temples of state than saloons, populated by a bunch of rowdy politicians, all jostling for advantage. Little has obviously changed over the centuries – except for the language. People back then seemed far more eloquent – dare I suggest they were possibly better-educated? – Which Tony Kushner’s dialogue reflects so delightfully.
The film is less about a historical icon than a man despised by many of his political adversaries as a country bumpkin from the boondocks. Burdened by the weight of office, weary of war and concerned at the death toll, with his wife Mary at his side (Sally Field), often more of a burden than support. One son lost at age 11, the exhausted parents fear losing the other, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), chomping at the bit to go to war.
Lincoln believed slavery was an outrage, and that only a constitutional amendment would spell its permanent demise in America, but he also regarded the 13th Amendment as a practical tool to whittle away the Confederacy’s financial resources and destabilize its government. He is fully aware that ending the war before the amendment is passed will be its death knell and, although it has passed in the Senate, it lacks sufficient backing in the House of Representatives. Debate rages over the prudence of the amendment – i.e. putting an end to slavery. Some see peace as a necessary predecessor to its passing, while others see it as only a step towards ending the civil war. Lincoln must take a centrist stance, and he does so very effectively.
Nor is Lincoln averse to some necessary horse trading to gain the votes he needs; granting many political favors to party rivals in exchange. When it comes to his own party, he relies on the coercive talents of his trio of lobbyists W.N. BIlbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richrad Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) to persuade the lame ducks, who have been sitting on the fence. Key support for the amendment lies at the party’s other extreme, with the Radicals, zealous abolitionists all, headed by the creatively offensive Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) of Pennsylvania. It is he and Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), who ultimately shepherd the amendment through.
Days after the vote, Lincoln and Seward meet with the Confederate delegation, which makes it clear that any negotiated surrender is conditional upon Lincoln’s written pledge that the 13th Amendment will not be ratified. Lincoln tells them clearly that all of the North will ratify it, and at least three Confederate states have confirmed that they will do the same upon readmission to the Union – thus, the end of slavery is now sealed. Needless to say, negotiations founder. Two months later, General Robert E. Lee (Christopher Boyer) surrenders at Appomattox. Lincoln’s tactics have paved the way for the Confederate states to be peacefully readmitted to the Union – a triumph he will not live to see, as he is assassinated only days later.
It is interesting to see the parallels between then and now: a Congress in gridlock, political wheeling and dealing, personal interests taking precedence, winning votes with bribery. People are people, I guess, and nothing ever changes. Although I can’t but wonder what Lincoln would think if he saw that America today has a black president! I like to think he’d be proud.
Nominated for 12 Oscars, 10 BAFTAs, winner of one Golden Globe for best dramatic actor for Daniel Day Lewis, as well as a further sweeping 15 wins and 59 nominations in less salubrious film festivals far and wide, LINCOLN seems set to clean up as the best picture all round for 2012, despite ARGO’s major win at the Globes. The movie has already grossed over $160 million in the US since its release on Nov. 16th and is set to open in many major foreign territories. Whether LINCOLN is actually the best film of the year is a matter of conjecture, but there is no doubt that it is a truly great film – and well worth seeing.
LINCOLN (USA 2012): Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox; Running time: 149 minutes; Director: Steven Spielberg; Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book: “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”); Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones; Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski; Music: John Williams; Release dates: 16. November, 2012 (US) / 24. January, 2013 (Germany); Rated PG-13 (for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language).