Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lincoln Gives a Historical Lesson on how to Make a Great Bio-Pic

Lincoln (4 out of 5 Stars)
Directed by Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan)
Written by Tony Kushner (Munich)
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, David Straitharn, and Tommy Lee Jones

When I got back to my job from a ten day vacation, to my delight I found three invitations to screenings of films.  Two of them were for Wednesday, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, and one for Thursday, Flight.  I picked Lincoln for two reasons.  The first reason one there was the live satellite interview with Spielberg and Day Lewis, and I was immensely interested to hear them speak about this film.  The second reason was because as a history major in my undergraduate days I worship the material, used to adapt this film.   Lincoln gives an historical lesson on how to make a great bio-pic.

The film starts four months before the end of the Civil War, as the battles are raging on, President Abraham Lincoln is looking to bring the nation back together meanwhile trying to fight for the rights of those enslaved by the Confederacy.  There are no real spoilers in this film, as everyone hopefully knows the 13th Amendment was ratified, and President Lincoln was assassinated.  The film focuses on the journey to ratification, and the eventual death of the President and what he meant to this nation at the time, and in a sense what he still means to Americans.

The film was adapted from the book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" from Dorris Kearns Goodwin.  In the interview with Spielberg he stated that back in 1999 when the book was released he read it, and asked Goodwin if he could buy the rights and make the book into a film about Lincoln.  This film has been in the works since 1999.  Spielberg asked playwright, and screenwriter Tony Kushner, with whom he would work on Munich with first, to write the screenplay for this film.  Spielberg openly discussed that Kushner's first version of this script was over 500 pages "and would be longer than most HBO mini-series."  Fair warning if you do not have a love of history this may still feel like a long HBO mini-series.

You will be happy to know that the film was condensed and made into a much sharper history lesson about the man, the myth, and the legend that is Abraham Lincoln.  You should also know that Goodwin is a historian, and as a historian her job is to convey fact, and to provide authentic context and and experiential journey for the readers.  Kushner's screenplay does exactly the same thing; he creates scenarios like in his play Angels in America, where characters, mainly Lincoln talk and provide history. lessons to those around them.  This is something that Lincoln did on a regular basis to everyone who would listen.  Some will describe this script as "talky" but I say the script is the perfect blue print for a film that is meant to provide a snap shot of the historical context on the importance of this man, and his impact on the society then, and now.

Kushner and Spielberg worked together on another film about a real life event, Munich.  Munich was Speilberg's last well made film, it has his signature style, but also goes off book.  Lincoln has the same quality as this film; he allows the material, like the writing from the book, and screenplay, and the acting do most of the work.  You often know when you are watching a Steven Spielberg film, there are certain qualities or aspects, which signify his style.  This is something every director has, but they are often most successful when they stray from their comfort zone, and imbibe a little fear, something Spielberg talked about in his interview.  There was careful planning that went into making this film, and the end results are proof that he worked hard to get the most from this film, and his leading man.

As Daniel Day Lewis steps on stage, there is chill that passed down my spine, something he often invokes with his acting, or presence.  Day Lewis is a brilliant as Lincoln; he brings to life the man, his speeches, and shows you just how comfortable he was connecting with the masses.  Lincoln was one of the few Presidents we have had who came from nothing, Day Lewis connects with this aspect of Lincoln, and proves that within him there is a way for you to connect with him in this role on every level in believe in the greatness of this man.

Day Lewis shared with online audiences the way Lincoln made his decisions; he talked out loud with the people around him from his wife, to his Cabinet, and even to every day people.  This part of the film was wonderfully crafted with the screenplay, but also shows up with the great ensemble.  There were few shining stars in the rest of the ensemble but together these character actors worked together to create a seamless environment where you fell into the landscape of the film.  The one standout supporting performance for me was Tommy Lee Jones who played Representative Thadeus Stevens, a Republican who believed in full equality for all Americans.  Jones had great speeches, was funny, touching, and shined in a truly great supporting role.

Together these actors, along with a subdued, yet beautiful score by John Williams create an environment rich in context, and historical lessons. Together with the direction from Spielberg, and the writing from the original author, and the adapted work form this great history lesson.  One of the great things about film, is the way it informs everyday life, giving a basic understanding to different life experiences For example in this film shows our democratic process, and the way it still remains the same throughout all these years.

Audiences will make the comparison of the current political spectrum and the way way we remain a country divided by deep issues.  There is no Civil War brewing, but it feels as though are differences divide us stronger than ever, or are a resemblance of the debates the House has in this film.  From abortion to gay marriage, the country does not see eye to eye, and we seem to be in a constant battle with one another.  People are going to compare President Obama, a man who has broken barriers to Lincoln based on the material of this film, its only natural.  Yet some would disagree because of their political leanings. Lincoln, is not only a well made movie, but an important historical document.

Biographical films rarely focus on getting things right on multiple levels.  Most focus on the entertainment value.  Can we sell this person's story?  Lincoln tells a history lesson, and is a well made film, I am proud to say I enjoyed this film.  Nice rebound from War Horse!

1 comment:

goodboy said...

Good piece, friend.