Friday, March 8, 2013

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)

Honest Abe.

Honest Abe, the Liberator, the Great Emancipator. Throughout the course of human history, or to be more exact, the human understanding of history, Abraham Lincoln has always been highly considered as a pinnacle icon of human nobility, and numerous films have been made about him. From John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln" (starring Henry Fonda) to the insanely random "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter", Honest Abe has always been ubiquitous in the annals of cinema. But do you know what's the only thing lacking? Yes, you've guessed right, a proper biopic that would cater to a modern audience. And that, my friends, is just what director Steven Spielberg has given us: a version of Abraham Lincoln that wouldn't kill vampires for pleasure or would just serve as a supporting snippet for a Nostradamus documentary (D.W. Griffith's "Abraham Lincoln") but one that would really make us feel how it is to be a pressured leader whose sole purpose is to deliver his country from prejudice and bondage. 
It of course stars one of the greatest actors of our time, Daniel Day-Lewis, as the eponymous American president, a role that has deservedly given him his third Academy Award (although my heart still have a soft spot for Joaquin Phoenix's performance in "The Master"). Even from this film's early stages of pre-production, I was keen enough to follow the latest developments, specifically when Liam Neeson has surprisingly decided to vacate the lead role. In a way, when Neeson left the cast, I thought the film will certainly be shelved. But then, the great news has struck me: according to reports, Daniel Day-Lewis has agreed to replace Neeson as Lincoln. And then just like that, the film's first production picture, that of DDL sitting with a humble grin, came out; Day-Lewis, even in his casual, non-19th century garb, looks spot-on as the much-venerated president. From that moment on, with him looking more Abraham Lincoln than Abraham Lincoln himself, I just knew it: Daniel Day-Lewis will make history as the first actor to nab 3 Best Actor Oscars. And bless the Oracle of Delphi, made he did. 
Although "Lincoln", as a period biopic, sometimes lacks the particular liveliness that characterizes the genre, Day-Lewis' performance and Steve Kushner's exquisitely written screenplay was able to work hand-in-hand to carry the whole film through. And for Spielberg, who, for this film, is surprisingly subtle in his sentimentalism, his choice of where to approach Lincoln's humanity was perfect, and that is through Abe's humbling skill as a storyteller. Instead of utilizing some emotionally swaying speeches (hell, the Gettysburg address has not even seen the light of day), Spielberg has filtered Lincoln's influential personality through his witty retelling of various anecdotes and whatnot, which makes him all the more endearing and instantly reachable not just for the characters that surround him but also for us viewers. In this case, myth-making works the other way around: this time, a veneer of enigma won't certainly do Abe Lincoln's personality justice. What's needed is a dose of humble humanity and some hints of vulnerability, which this film has taken on with class. 
Consider the brief scene when Abe's son is sleeping on the floor. Instead of immediately bringing him to his bed, Abe, uncharacteristic of a larger-than-life leader, slowly hunched his posture and lied down on the floor with his son. Despite the film's abundance of memorable images, this is the scene that has stayed with me the most. Perhaps the film is suggesting that more than being a father of an entire nation, Lincoln is also the patriarch of a simple family, and in many cases, it's as important to be good as the latter as it is to be great as the former. 
Again, Spielberg was able to display his exceptional range as a director in this film; that he can be subtle as he can be emotionally preachy and that he can direct sequences of massive proportions the same way he can execute smaller scenes of emotional resonance. If ever this film has proven anything, aside of course from Daniel Day-Lewis' flawless acting prowess (not to mention the film's great supporting cast that is headlined by the great Sally Field and the grumpy-looking yet very witty Tommy Lee Jones) which has given life and character to a man whom we have never even seen in actual footage or even heard deliver speeches, then it is Spielberg's utter completeness as a filmmaker. 
But then again, after all is said and done, this film is solely Abraham Lincoln's: A man who has shaken the status quo for the sake of a higher purpose, a man who has delivered America from the ruthless hands of slavery, and a man who, simply put, has forever changed the face of human history.


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