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Critic's Notebook:

'Lincoln' aims to enlighten as it entertains

Steven Spielberg's overt message about the need to unite on divisive issues for the common good is wrapped inside a populist blockbuster with Shakespearean shadings — no small feat.

December 15, 2012|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) walks through the corridors of the White House in "Lincoln."
Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) walks through the corridors of the… (David James, DreamWorks…)

In "Lincoln," director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have pulled off the improbable: They have built this season's prestige hit around congressional proceedings that might seem more appropriate for C-SPAN than the big screen.

Any movie that can interest a mainstream audience in the legislative wheeling and dealing that allowed Abraham Lincoln to acquire the necessary congressional votes to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery is deserving of a presidential medal. No doubt David McCullough, the bestselling historian who has been sounding the alarm of late about how we're raising a generation of "historically illiterate" young people, is sleeping more soundly.

But the film does something more important than reacquaint moviegoers with the half-forgotten facts and figures of high school social studies. It demonstrates the way history, refracted through the imaginations of artists, can clarify our values, reminding us of what we stand for, why we stand for it and how much we have sacrificed to achieve and safeguard these ideals.


FOR THE RECORD:
"Lincoln": A Critic's Notebook by Charles McNulty in the Dec. 16 Calendar section about the movie "Lincoln" said President Abraham Lincoln was haunted by the death of his eldest son. The son that Lincoln and his wife were mourning while in the White House was "Willie" Lincoln, their third child. —

When so many are navel-gazing and tweeting about what happened two seconds ago — drawn to fantasy, comic books and sarcasm — there's something brave and chastening about summoning history to shed dramatic light on current concerns. The film stands out in a year of cultural confusion and speeded-up events for making us pause to consider first principles.

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In shaping a narrative around watershed moments of the past, writers and filmmakers naturally reflect the worries of their own time. But they also have the opportunity to inspire us to higher ground. History has many uses, and Spielberg and Kushner, following the lead of artists extending as far back as the ancient Greeks, nobly exploit its power to illuminate present crises and show that they may not be as exceptional (or as immune to remedy) as we might think.

"Lincoln" was in the works long before the term "fiscal cliff" ever passed the lips of a TV anchor, but a drama about a rancorous partisan stalemate can't help resonating in today's divided America. That the story revolves around an issue as distant and morally abhorrent as slavery only makes the contemporary parallels that much more accessible. A century and a half can soften ideological defenses.

Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," the movie hews fairly closely to the historical record. Of course dramatization requires certain liberties, and the human story has to be emotionally shaded in, something Daniel Day-Lewis does magnificently in a Lincoln portrayal that glows with a sepia-tinged melancholy.

Spielberg opted not for a traditional biopic but for a more narrowly focused drama on the grand finale of Lincoln's life. Front and center is the logrolling though which an implacable Lincoln enshrined slavery's permanent demise in the Constitution.

The personal story isn't excluded — there are scenes showcasing the grief-racked disquiet of Sally Field's Mary Todd Lincoln, others involving Lincoln as a tenderhearted dad, always ready to give his youngest a horseback ride. But the movie continually redirects emotion from the personal to the public.

Haunted by the death of his son, Lincoln channels his sorrow into bold political action. Knowing what it means to lose a child, he has greater empathy for the soldiers strewn across Civil War battlefields and their families plunged into a state of mourning from which they'll never wholly escape. Trying to undo slavery before the war's end is a tightrope walk made all the more agonizing for the costly human toll that is anything but abstract for this president — or for Spielberg, whose body of work offers harrowing portraits of the appalling suffering of war.

Mortality connects us to basic facts, one of which is the equality of human beings. In one of his late-night powwows, Lincoln invokes Euclid's "first common notion," which states that things that are equal to the same thing are also equal to each other. Day-Lewis' Lincoln treats this not simply as a mathematical truism but as a religious creed.

Spielberg is a remarkably effective filmmaker, though no one could accuse him of being a subtle one. The excesses of his populist style, though somewhat inhibited by the intellectual rectitude of Kushner's screenplay, are on display for highbrows to mock.

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