Last year, the New York Film Festival launched a new tradition, the secret screening, by premiering an unfinished cut of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” On Monday night, the 50th edition of the festival continued that tradition by unveiling a supposed work-in-progress cut of Steven Spielberg’s talky period drama “Lincoln.”
In both cases, the festival used the slot to make room for a renowned filmmaker expanding his range, but while Scorsese aimed big with an advanced CGI spectacle, the Spielberg effort showcased the filmmaker’s uncharacteristic willingness to recede into the material, resulting in a stagy, hyper-literate drama that begs comparisons to his “Amistad” while towering over it thanks to a handful of measured performances and Tony Kushner’s heavy screenplay. There are moments in “Lincoln” when typical Spielberg-grade sentimentalism, from the soundtrack to countless histrionic outbursts, encroach on the story’s more subdued qualities. But there’s a noticeable consistency to the movie’s internal battles; this is, after all, a Civil War tale.
Unlike “Hugo,” which had uncompleted CGI imagery in its opening shot at the NYFF screening, “Lincoln” looked like a finished product — although I’ve been advised that since the movie officially premieres in the closing night slot at AFI Fest next month, an embargo remains in place, so bonafide “Lincoln” reviews must wait. Instead, consider this a descriptive guide to the movie’s distinctive qualities.
The main takeaway: Don’t trust the trailer. The handful of scenes excerpted in the fleeting teasers released in recent weeks highlight the clumsier scenes involving Lincoln’s persistence in passing the 13th Amendment during the tense period when he campaigned for members of Congress to ratify the constitution in early 1864, four months before his assassination. With Daniel Day Lewis predictably embodying the president’s lanky figure and wise gaze and calculated delivery, “Lincoln” tracks much of these developments through low key exchanges alternately unfolding in backroom strategy sessions and in grand showdowns on the floor of the House of Representatives.
At two hours and 30 minutes or so (no one was quite sure of the runtime beforehand), “Lincoln” contains only a single battle scene in its opening seconds. The rest is pure talk, a keen dramatization of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s tome “Team of Rivals,” that delivers an overview of Lincoln’s crowning achievement in chunks of strategy talk. Ostensibly a well-acted history lesson, it captures the turmoil of the period by observing Lincoln at work rather than wasting time valorizing him.
Unlike John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” or D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln,” Spielberg’s focused approach compresses the portrait of an icon into a collection of conversations that oscillate between his professional life and the more uncertain challenges he faced in his relationship with his mentally unstable wife Mary Todd (Sally Field, who lands a handful of frenzied monologues) and his children, including the grown son Robert Todd Lincoln (a barely-seen Joseph Gordon Levitt), whose interest in joining the war gives the president a personal reason to end it. While he’s still a dynamic, morally upstanding figure, Day Lewis’ Lincoln at least displays a fair amount of conflict.
But he isn’t the only star of the show. As smarmy Pennsylvanian Thaddeus Stevens, a loudmouthed member of the House more offensive in his approach to implement the 13th Amendment for reasons keenly revealed only at the movie’s end, Tommy Lee Jones frequently provides moments of comic relief with his usual deadpan routine. Field’s assaultive treatment of Lincoln whenever he hesitates on his goal also kicks up the movie’s energy whenever the proceedings turn dry.
Nevertheless, the motivating force of “Lincoln” belongs to its leading man, whose screen presence is a wonder to behold even when he says nothing. Many scenes featuring arguments between members of Lincoln’s brain trust or opposing figures in the House find the president sitting with his head down and quietly listening as Lewis simply inhabits the character. In many of these scenes, he breaks the silence with a jarringly shrill (but historically accurate, according to most reports) delivery. He makes the case for Lincoln’s lasting appeal by realizing Lincoln’s personality with a mixture of charisma and humility.
There’s not much to “Lincoln” aside from the president and his peers engaging in discourse on the many reasons to abolish slavery. The constant chatter alone makes it stand out in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. When I spoke to the director last year, he said he felt no need to remain tethered to large scale storytelling. “If I found a story and felt empowered to want to direct it, and it was just a couple of characters in a room, I would do it,” he said. That’s essentially “Lincoln” in a nutshell, although Spielberg’s choice of characters and the rooms they stand in mean the stakes are still pretty high. “This has been a journey down through history unlike any I’ve done,” he said to last night’s audience. He got that right.
Aided by Kushner’s script, “Lincoln” is seriously muted compared to anything Spielberg has done before. “The West Wing” by way of a costume drama, it tracks the abolition of slavery as a series of negotiations with major ramifications only transparently stated in the final scenes. “This is history!” someone actually exclaims. Indeed it is, and with all that talking, “Lincoln” eventually runs out of breath, but not before making it clear that the 65-year-old Spielberg most certainly has not.