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'Lincoln' aims to enlighten as it entertains

MoviesElectionsSteven SpielbergLincoln (movie, 2012)

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.

The opening scene in which Lincoln enters into a colloquy with a pair of black soldiers has a didactic earnestness that seems almost like an apology for all the scenes with African American characters that never made it onto the screen. John Williams' score has the blatancy of a mass-market greeting card. And then there are the multiple endings, each one trying to raise the cathartic stakes yet none surpassing the one in which Lincoln, taking on the proportions of a religious figure, fatefully walks out of the White House and into the pages of history.

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This inventory might make "Lincoln" seem overripe, but Spielberg's lubrications have a grander motive: The film seeks to inspire the better angels of our all-too-partisan natures. To this end Spielberg deploys all his blockbuster know-how, and no one should be surprised that Kushner, the ethical imagination behind "Angels in America," has played a central role in the movie's creation.

Built for a big demographic sweep, "Lincoln" arrives at an unusual blend of austerity and sentimentality to unite an audience in a collective appreciation of something that has been lost in America — a shared sense of the common good. In this respect, the film had me harking back as much to the ancient Greeks as to our 19th century forefathers. The notion of the polis, so central to the citizens of 5th century BC Athens and so diminished now, is restored in a film that's adult enough to appreciate that realpolitik means are sometimes necessary for landmark humanitarian ends.

Shakespeare, of course, is the master of rip-roaring historical drama. His plays rearrange national chronicles to discover enduing human patterns — some good, mostly bad — of rulers and those who would overthrow them. It's a more universal approach than, say, that of filmmaker Oliver Stone, who is drawn to cracking history's secret conspiratorial code.

Kushner's screenplay, as deeply humane as it is dryly political, is replete with Shakespeare quotes, which are uttered by Lincoln in a manner more Stanislavskian than Elizabethan. As externally driven as he is, Lincoln's interiority feel vast, almost bottomless. One would have to go to the tragedies to find a character who can match it.

Shakespeare's history plays register the anxieties of his politically paranoid age, but they tend to shy away from direct commentary of ongoing royal strife. A working artist, he knew which side his bread was buttered on and had an uncanny ability to make conservatives and revolutionaries alike feel as though he were on their side.

The intention behind "Lincoln" seems more interventionist. It wants to instruct mainstream moviegoers while flattering their sophistication. Spielberg has a genius for driving home points in a way that is simultaneously obvious and bold. An example is the bedroom scene between Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the radical abolitionist in the House of Representatives, and his black housekeeper, Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson), in which the two intimately exult in the 13th Amendment's passage.

The contrasting sensibilities at work in "Lincoln" — part Shakespeare, part Oprah Winfrey — may not cohere into a seamless work of art, but the film's heavy-handed touches have a noble design: Predictable emotional buttons are pushed to challenge our civic engagement and to restore faith in the often unseemly democratic process.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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