DANIEL DAY-LEWIS SCORES AS LINCOLN, DENZEL WASHINGTON SOARS IN FLIGHT
Under the deft and mostly unobtrusive direction of Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day- Lewis achieves yet another startling screen transformation — into the 16th President of the United States in Lincoln , a sprawling saga that dramatizes the last year of the Civil War and the last year of Abraham Lincoln’s life.
Having recently been re-elected to office despite the ongoing bloodshed of the Civil War, Lincoln now faces the inevitable debate in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery. Lincoln had already introduced the Emancipation Proclamation, the Senate had already passed the amendment and now it falls to the House — where tempers are certainly raging. It’s Lincoln’s intent to have the amendment pass and to end the Civil War almost simultaneously, if such a feat is possible. Even those closest to him wonder often and aloud whether it is.
Such responsibility weighs heavily on Lincoln, as do his relationships, each complicated in its own way, with wife Mary (Sally Field), whom he calls “Molly,” their two sons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Chase Edmunds), and his political allies (Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn and Hal Holbrook among them), some of whom are as critical of Lincoln as they are loyal.
There’s a lot of history to cover in the roughly six-month span that the film depicts, but Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner do so in engaging terms that avoids becoming musty or overly didactic. This is high drama at times, rooted in fact (and based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals) and put across in persuasive fashion, even if John Williams’ score is typically overemphatic at times.
Needless to say, with the title Lincoln, the principal focus is on that title character — and Day-Lewis is astonishing, imbuing an iconic character with warmth, humor and steely resolve. Not unlike Henry Fonda in John Ford’s 1937 classic Young Mr. Lincoln, this Lincoln is very human. Honest Abe certainly has his homespun, folksy charm, but he’s also a shrewd statesman who knows that the larger issues at hand demand immediate attention — and action. The makeup is effective, and so is Day-Lewis’ Kentucky accent, replete with the high voice that Lincoln possessed.
There’s also room for the star-studded supporting cast to shine, with particularly strong turns by Field, giving a stellar performance in her best screen role in years, and Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the lifelong Pennsylvania abolitionist who preaches freedom for all men but admits a lack of faith in mankind in general.
Making their marks in smaller roles are James Spader, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McGill, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jared Harris (as Ulysses S.
Grant) and the always welcome Holbrook, who has his own history with Abraham Lincoln, having played him to great acclaim on television in an adaptation of the Carl Sandburg biography in the 1970s.
There are so many good scenes and good performances that, even if the overall film doesn’t quite achieve absolute greatness, it is nevertheless very good and very worthy. By not depicting Lincoln’s assassination onscreen — whether out of reverence or respect or the simple decision that it wasn’t necessary (all of which are certainly valid) — the end of the film feels slightly anticlimactic.
Certainly, one knows that the 13th Amendment did pass and that Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth shortly thereafter, yet there’s never the palpable sense that Lincoln could himself be in danger, even after so bloody and destructive a Civil War, with so many hard (and hardened) feelings in a nation that was literally and figuratively torn apart. Perhaps that’s a matter for another time, and another movie.
Robert Zemeckis, having worked exclusively in motion-capture filmmaking for the better part of a decade (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol) and having weathered a box-office catastrophe as producer of last year’s Mars Needs Moms, makes a triumphant return to live action with Flight .
Whatever one thought of his recent films, some of which were quite successful, this is not merely a return to a more traditional format but one of the best films of his career — yes, including the Oscar-winning (and slightly overrated) blockbuster Forrest Gump (1994). Flight is a penetrating and perceptive character study, and that the character in question is played by Denzel Washington, it’s already ahead of the game.
Washington portrays veteran airline pilot Whip Whittaker, a man who takes pride in his profession despite ongoing binges of drink and drugs. No matter what condition he finds himself in, Whip has complete confidence in his abilities — as well as an ability to deny that he has a problem.
On a routine flight to Atlanta, which Zemeckis depicts in head-spinning, whiteknuckle fashion, Flight 227 undergoes a series of mechanical failures that might otherwise have resulted in utter disaster had not Whit managed to execute a dramatic crash-landing.
Six people perish, including two flight attendants, and several others (including Whip) are badly injured, but he is hailed as a hero for this miracle landing — at which point his problems really begin. The obligatory pending investigation may well reveal Whip’s condition at the time of the crash. Taking responsibility has never been his strong suit, and he’s adamant that his condition was not the cause of the crash, yet with his career and future at stake he is now compelled to look inward. Against such pressure, he finds himself sliding into his own destructive habits — at precisely a time when he can’t afford to. Washington, who’s always good — whether or not the film is (think Man on Fire or the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3) — is in top form here. Much as this is one of Zemeckis’ very best films, this is also one of Washington’s very best performances, as a complex character who’s not always sympathetic but who is utterly believable. It’s the kind of nuanced role that any actor would dream of playing — if, perhaps, Washington were not so brilliant playing it.
A first-rate supporting cast includes the wonderful John Goodman (who’s everywhere these days) as Whip’s faithful dealer, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, James Badge Dale (brilliant in his one scene) and Kelly Reilly as Nicole, a young heroin addict whose latest overdose coincided with the crash-landing and who becomes Whip’s lover and (occasional) conscience.
It’s only at the very end, when the film pushes its lesson of redemption a bit stridently, that Flight approaches conventional melodrama. Yet given what has come before it’s only a minor (and not unexpected) distraction. Among the year’s possible award contenders, Flight flies very high indeed.