Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lincoln Shines Courtesy of a Tight Script and Towering Lead Performance

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski offers up really great
interior work, especially with the natural lighting.
I’ve been seeing movies at a fervent pace the last few weeks in an attempt to catch up on all these Oscar nominees. As a result you can expect quite a few reviews this week in the lead up to the 85th Academy Awards. First up: Lincoln.

Lincoln has emerged as a major player in this year’s Oscar race, with a pack-leading 12 nominations. Sometimes, the lead dog ends up with a few nominations it really didn't deserve, and it would be easy to assume an Oscar-baiting film like this would do just that, but that’s not really the case here. There’s a broad spectrum of craft excellence on display in Lincoln, and all 12 nominations are immensely defendable. In fact, a strong case could be made that the film should have been nominated in the Makeup and Hairstyling category as well.

The film also has netted quite a profit, especially considering it’s a talky, two-and-a-half hour period piece. At $176 million and counting, it has nearly tripled its production budget to become the biggest domestic grosser of this year’s nine nominated films.

Director Steven Spielberg put in over a decade of work developing Lincoln, and, given the end result, it was time well spent. Many biopics falter in trying to give a general survey of the central figure’s life, but Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner wisely limit the narrative reach to the early months of 1865, focusing almost exclusively on the private and public hardships Lincoln faced in pushing the 13th Amendment though the House of Representatives.

Other than a few quick war scenes, most of the action takes place in the White House and House of Representatives. Given this, the film could have very easily fallen into History Channel ennui, but, amazingly, Lincoln is often a riveting motion picture experience. It’s easy to imagine some people will find the film boring, but for fans of character development, dialogue, and scene construction, this is a real treat.

Much of the credit for this is owed to Tony Kushner’s ace script, which keeps things brisk and exciting, and offers an intriguing amount of shading to Lincoln, a man of great conscience whose standing as a folksy teller of parables ingratiates him to the public while also causing his chief detractors to underestimate his immense political guile.

Great character actors David Strathairn, Tim Blake
Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader add
expert support as vital member's of Lincoln's team.
All of these traits and more are expertly communicated in Daniel Day Lewis’s undeniably magnetic performance. When his casting was first announced, it was easy to guess a titan like Day Lewis would ride this to a record breaking third Best Actor Oscar, and the seeming inevitability of that almost soured me to the movie prematurely. However, even the most resistant viewers would be hard-pressed to deny the depth of the performance, which is not so much a portrayal as it is an inhabitance.

Day Lewis is joined by a large cast of recognizable character actors, headed up by Oscar nominees Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. The role of “cantankerous old guy who doesn't suffer fools easily” fits Jones like a glove, but this is an especially plugged-in take on his patented archetype with some lovely undercurrents of resentment and contained compassion thrown in. Meanwhile, although Field’s Mary Todd doesn't always work for me, she totally kills it in a mid-movie tete-a-tete with Jones, while also keeping the character’s inherent hysterics admirably restrained.

Speaking of restrained, one of the most refreshing aspects of the film is how reeled in Spielberg and frequent composer John Williams are in this enterprise. Both are icons in their fields that have, at times, become victims of their stylistic leanings, but they take a low key approach here the beautifully serves the material.

Although it didn't get under my skin like my favorite films tend to do, I admire the hell out of Lincoln and am in awe of the central performance. Oh, and I learned a whole lot to boot, which is cool. Overall, the film is nearly perfect for what it is, and I expect it will hold up quite well and endure as one of the best films of 2012. A