Surprisingly intimate yet dealing with moral questions of epic proportion, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" is a movie befitting its subject, as we know him. At once warm and folksy, fierce and impassioned, this is perhaps the most accessible film yet made about the Great Emancipator in terms of presenting him as a man — not the mythic rail splitter-cum-savior of the Union — who somehow managed to adhere to his moral code, behave with dignity and hang on to his sanity as chaos swirled about him on all fronts.
Based on various parts of Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," the film focuses on the last four months of the president's life, primarily on January of 1865 when he was intent on getting the 13th Amendment of the Constitution passed and enacted by Congress. Knowing that the Civil War is coming to an end, Lincoln realizes that the Emancipation Proclamation may be deemed unconstitutional once it is over, and in order to ensure that the slaves who have been set free remain so, this law must be passed promptly.
However, there are other considerations to take into account, namely a peace delegation from the Confederate States that's due to arrive in Washington at any point that will put forth a proposal to end the war, which Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) urges him to accept immediately. If he does so before the amendment passes, then it likely never will.
However, the most pressing concern is making sure that there are enough votes to pass the amendment if it comes to a vote, and what ensues is a display of real politics in action as promises are made, arms are twisted and patronage jobs are given as well many other backroom deals that's "the end justifying the means" in vivid action. James Spader, William Blake Nelson and John Hawkes provide welcome comic relief as "skulky men," charged with getting the final 10 votes needed by hook or by crook and the methods they resort to, though shown in a rather light manner, remind us that politics is a dirty, crooked game. In a similar vein, the discourse between the warring factions on the House floor is so insulting and unbridled that it's no wonder that fistfights broke out and duels were a result. Were things in the chambers conducted in a similar manner today, C-Span would never struggle for viewers.
It is this attempt at presenting things in an unvarnished manner that makes Spielberg's film unique, and no one exemplifies that better than Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. The actor brings a quiet dignity to the man, as he is seen as the eye of emotional, political and social hurricanes, the calm center in every storm who finds not only the moral solution to each of his problems, but is able to convince others to join him in what might be unpopular decisions. There's a quiet heroism at work here primarily because Lincoln is portrayed as merely a man, albeit one with extraordinary patience and vision. To be sure, there are moments when he shows a bit of anger and great passion, but his humanity is always present, which makes his actions all the more astounding.
Day-Lewis is more than ably supported by Sally Field, who creates a more sympathetic Mary Todd Lincoln than has been previously on display, and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a fierce abolitionist who must temper his passion if he's to be of any use to the president. Their efforts as well as those of Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner and many others will be remembered when end-of-the-year awards are handed out. Any accolades they receive will be well-deserved as they've collaborated to do what many would not have thought possible — in stressing the humanity of Lincoln, they've managed to elevate his historical stature even higher still.
4 stars out of 4
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris and Lee Pace.
Directed by Steven Spielberg; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Spielberg; screenplay by Tony Kushner, based on the book "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
A 20th Century-Fox release. 149 minutes. Rated PG-13 (intense scenes of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
"Sessions" survives narrative oversight. (3 stars out of 4)
You would have to be a hard-hearted individual indeed not to be moved by Mark O'Brien's story.
Having contracted polio at the age of 6, the writer spends most of his time confined in an iron lung, a prison he's dependent on for up to 19 hours a day. Yet, this hardly proves to be an impediment for his mind as he imagines myriad possibilities for his life, chief among them what it would be like to have sex. His journey toward realizing this ambition makes up the bulk of Ben Lewin's "The Sessions," an earnest account of O'Brien's trial-and-error process that led to his losing his virginity.
Delicate territory to be sure, the film does a fine job of delivering some effectively humorous scenes, most revolving around O'Brien's wry, self-effacing sense of humor, as well as treating his quest with the gravity befitting it. However, where it stumbles, almost to the detriment of the entire movie, is in rendering the relationship that develops between O'Brien and his sexual surrogate, as not nearly enough time is devoted to allow it to progress in a logical and believable manner.
O'Brien's journey begins when he's assigned to write a story on sex and the disabled. At first shocked by what he learns, he comes to realize that he may be able to realize some bit of sexual satisfaction of his own with a surrogate, a proposition that simultaneously fills him with excitement and dread. An expert in this area is recommended, a contact is made and soon O'Brien is meeting with Cheryl (Helen Hunt), an specialist in what she calls "body awareness exercises." Her plan of action is blunt and uncomplicated — they will have no more than six sessions together in which O'Brien will learn how to read various sensations his body detects, learn the rudimentary skills involved in intercourse by practicing with her and then she will be on her way.
There are many ways this material could have been mishandled, but Lewin is able to combine scenes of frustration, embarrassment, humor and passion in such a way that none of them feels indelicate or exploitive. Perhaps most important to the success of the film is that O'Brien is never portrayed as an object of pity, but rather a courageous, inquisitive man who is eager to get as much out of life as he possibly can despite his physical limitations and natural feelings of insecurity. Hawkes is fantastic in the role, limited to only the expressions he makes with his face and movements of his head. This is a performance based around the actor's eyes as he conveys the gamut of emotions O'Brien experiences to amazing effect with them. Hunt is equally as good, naked physically throughout most of the film as well as emotionally exposed during its third act. Her infrequent appearances on screen make us forget what an effective actress she can be.
However, despite the principal's fine efforts, Lewin's screenplay employs some emotional shorthand that threatens to undercut the entire film. As the sessions progress, O'Brien and Cheryl's relationship develops in a way that, while not entirely unexpected, is far too hasty to be believed. I had a hard time accepting that the therapist's feelings about this undertaking and her client could change and become so deep, so quickly. It's a hollow note that simply doesn't ring true, yet there are enough honest moments sprinkled throughout to give this gaffe a pass.
Of particular note are the scenes in which O'Brien seeks counsel with Father Brendan, a Catholic priest alternately bemused, confused and perhaps a bit aroused as he hears of his parishioner's trials. William H. Macy perfectly captures the character's conflicting emotions, and the scenes he shares with Hawkes are among the film's best.
Though flawed, "The Sessions" ultimately proves to be a moving testament to living life not with limitations but rather to the fullest extent that our mind and spirit can take us. O'Brien's journey is ours as well, proving that often the greatest limitations we face are the ones we place on ourselves, which coincidentally are the most difficult yet satisfying to break.
A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow him on Twitter at @CKoplinski. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.