The Reel Deal
A Reel Deal Film Review
By Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 5 out of 5
“NOT THE ‘HONEST ABE’ YOU LEARNED ABOUT IN SCHOOL”
We just finished a pretty rough election cycle. Earlier this month, the Democrats defeated the Republicans rather handily, but there’s no denying that the country is polarized and that the game of politics is at a pretty toxic point. And yet, is our time really so different from any other? Are American politics so much worse now than ever before? It’s hard to say we’re at our most divided when 150 years ago we actually were physically divided into two nations. No matter what the pundits say, these aren’t end times, politics will go on, as they do. We may be divided, but that’s nothing new. Yes, our country has always been divided, and our politics have always been a rather dirty affair. Lincoln, even on just a sort of post-election hangover cure level, works to heal any wounds of this election, not by giving us some blind faith that American political life can be better, as a whitewash glorified version of the Lincoln story might have, but instead by making us realize that even the greatest among us–and I’m sure most of us, left-leaning and right-leaning, would call Abraham Lincoln one of America’s best sons–are flawed, and in a political reality must muddy themselves further in order to do what is right. Nothing great was ever done by clean hands, for better or worse.
Lincoln teases out, in subtle ways heretofore rarely seen in films by the master of oversentimentality Steven Spielberg, how even the most righteous of causes and even the most noble of men can’t escape being a part of the dirty game that is politics. Say what you will about Obamacare, but it was voted into law a hell of a lot less shadily than the 13th Amendment was. Without a president willing to cross the line a bit, without a Lincoln willing to do some wrong for the greater right, the 13th Amendment would not have passed when it did–and who knows how much longer the stain that was slavery would have lasted, tarnishing our great nation.
While Lincoln is certainly presented as a man to be admired in this film, he’s doesn’t get off scot-free. This isn’t just a bunch of laudatory hogwash, a paean to a president already awash in praise. Lincoln is a look into a complicated man trying to do what’s right, and hoping that in the face of immense challenges, he can meet them head-on and be on the right side of history. In this way, Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t play the president you and I learned about in gradeschool–the infallible, saintly ‘Honest Abe’–no, he plays the real man, is the real man, or at least as close an approximation of the real man as we can ever expect to see on the silver screen. His Lincoln is flawed, he’s overreaching, he’s inconsistent, he’s not entirely honest, and he’s got an odd, high-pitched, weaselly voice. But while Daniel Day gives maybe his best performance in a career full of best performances, this isn’t his film. Nor is it the supporting cast’s film either, even though Sally Fields, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, and others, give inspired performances. It’s not even Spielberg’s film. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to find a less Spielbergian film in Spielberg’s ouevre. He’s never this subtle, this small-scale, this intimate, especially with potentially large and lofty material. No, this is Tony Kushner’s Lincoln.
It’s Kushner’s screenplay, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Obama-inspiring Lincoln bio Team of Rivals, that really sets the tone of the film. There are few intense and emotional battle scenes, and even fewer soaring speeches backed by a John Williams score overstaying its welcome–both of which were things I was expecting when I heard Spielberg was doing a Lincoln movie. This is a small-scale Lincoln that almost feels like it should be on the stage were it not so perfect on the screen. The dialogue is phenomenal, with little nuggets of conversation-heavy scenes rather than big emotional speechifying moments. The film has been accused of rambling on to the point of tedium and boredom, something Lincoln’s own stories are similarly accused of within the film, but I found both the film as a whole and Lincoln’s meandering anecdotes absolutely riveting. Rarely are the little moments of struggle, defeat, and triumph in the political arena so accurately, honestly, and thrillingly portrayed.
Lincoln is a film directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner, based in part on Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, and Jackie Earle Haley. As the Civil War continues to rage, America’s president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield and as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures
Design by Jillian Mercado
Film Still from Lincoln, Photography Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures