If you missed “Lincoln” in its theatrical release, you have a second chance with its DVD release. Aside from its intrinsic appeal, the movie offers a case study in the dynamics of the Oscar race. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, it was the odds-on favorite since it first hit theaters late last year. It featured it a host of star actors in supporting roles, a screenplay by Tony Kushner, and a Serious Message. Indeed, its presumed social impact was so great that its release was delayed until after the election so as not to seem prejudicial. When the Golden Globe awards were announced, no less a public figure than Bill Clinton introduced this movie about another ex-President.
In the event, “Lincoln” was basically shut out of the major awards categories, with the notable exception of Day-Lewis, who won Best Actor in a walk for his exceptional portrayal of the title figure. But fellow nominees Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Fields lost, as did Spielberg himself. Kushner’s long and talky adaptation of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals” revealed the author’s stage background a bit too fully: the movie “runs long,” as the saying goes, and at times feels a bit too much like a history lesson, however well crafted it may be.
That problem reveals itself early on, shortly after a magnificently shot and edited opening scene showing Union and Confederate soldiers in hand to hand combat in the middle of a stream, their uniforms all but indistinguishable. The scene recalls the magnificent opening minutes of “Searching for Private Ryan,” with its riveting depiction of D-Day on the beach at Normandy. (Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s work here and throughout is excellent.) However, it quickly loses cinematic momentum and credibility as a young black soldier addresses the President in a speech that screams “exposition,” rather than advancing plot or character.
The script thereafter focuses on the political/personal drama of Lincoln’s trying to push the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution through an unruly Congress. (The historical parallels to the present are too obvious to discuss.) It’s fun to watch the various shenanigans—legal and otherwise—employed to pass this historical watershed of a bill, particularly the sundry efforts of one fictional but all-too-realistically named W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), a sort of lobbyist gone wild who functions as comic relief. But viewers not up on their 19th –Century American history may get lost in the tangle of maneuvers and strategies of those who worried that the Emancipation Proclamation would be voided when the Civil War ended.
Lincoln is also fighting a personal, at times distinctly uncivil war, with his wife (Sally Field) and his son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) over the issue of the young man’s joining the Army as the war winds down to its seemingly inevitable end. Day-Lewis has some of his best moments onscreen showing the cost of this familial battle, which becomes almost a movie-within-the-movie. Still, the film’s impact is somewhat diluted by the subplot.
“Lincoln” is rated “PG-13,” mostly for its scenes of violence and some occasional scatological humor. But I can see it becoming a staple of high school history courses, which may after all be the best venue for it, given the sad state of our young people’s knowledge or our/their own national evolution. Showing it with frequent pauses to explain and discuss the complex goings on might prove an attractive way to make the medicine go down. In any case, it’s a fine vehicle for both young people and (ahem) their parents to come to grips with the racial and political problems that resonate to this day.