Lincoln - Sneak Peek, Spielberg Q&A @ NYFF

Last night we were treated to a heart-stopping surprise at the Secret Screening of this year's New York Film Festival; the first screening of Steven Spielberg's unfinished new movie "Lincoln," starring Daniel Day-Lewis, to anyone, anywhere in the world. After waiting in our seats for almost an hour after the scheduled start time due to extreme security measures, the film was announced and introduced unexpectedly by Spielberg himself. There he was, the most successful director of all time thanking us for being there; the room shaking in applause. The film has been in development for over a decade, with multiple screenwriters and actors attached to the project. The screenplay was finally completed in 2009 by critically-acclaimed writer Tony Kushner (of "Angels in America" fame) based on the last chapters of the book 'Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln' (Google Affiliate Ad) by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

There is a painting on the rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. called 'The Apotheosis of Washington,' where America's first president is portrayed as turning into a god. What Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis have achieved in this film is the polar opposite of what was intended in that painting: they have created a very intimate and human portrait of a larger-than-life historical figure, one of the most influential characters of the 19th century. What struck me most about the film is that it shies away from showing some of the most important episodes in his life such as the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation, which are only mentioned in passing. It zooms in on the final two years of his presidency, focusing on the machinations involved in the passage of the 13th amendment which outlawed slavery. At first I thought that a film that was mostly propped up on legislative dialogue would put me to sleep after half an hour, but the film is so involving that I forgot to get bored. This film will rekindle your love of the democratic process after this year's election season in America. Take a look at the film's trailer here:

Spielberg and Kushner got a standing ovation from the audience at the start of the Q&A session after the film; but the theater really exploded when a spotlight shone on the director's box to introduce Day-Lewis and cast members Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tim Blake Nelson, and Spielberg's long-time producer Kathleen Kennedy.

The director mentioned that he purposely didn't include any battle scenes because of his experience in "Saving Private Ryan." He wanted to concentrate his efforts on creating a believable White House during the 1860's, something that was achieved by building sets which are lush, faithful reproductions of the government buildings of the era. Set designer Rick Carter pored over black-and-white photographs of the White House, and complemented his research with historical documents which describe the colors used in every room, down to the last detail. Spielberg mentioned that they were even able to use Lincoln's real pocket watch in the film, which was lent to the production by a museum and was wound up for the first time in over 50 years to record its distinct ticking sound.

He also discussed how they settled on the timbre of Lincoln's voice, since there are no recordings of the 16th president. The unusual choice of a high-pitched voice was actually made by Daniel Day-Lewis after they discovered some indications that he had a shrill voice. Spielberg got a laugh from the audience when he mentioned that he wouldn't have gotten away with giving Lincoln the same deep voice as the animatronic Lincoln in Disneyland. As always, Daniel Day-Lewis easily brushes away any preconceived notion you might have about what is achievable by an actor; he towers over the profundity of the historical events described in the film, in what might become one of the most memorable performances of his career.

Mary Lincoln got an unusually favorable treatment by minimizing the mental illnesses that have plagued her legacy. Kushner discussed how he was sympathetic to the plight of a mother who lost two sons and a husband, and wanted to paint a more compassionate portrait of the first lady. He also gave credit to Sally Field for delivering a nuanced performance with only a subtle reminder of her insanity.

Kushner also touched upon the development of the screenplay as seen through the eyes of someone who has experienced the gridlock in Washington over the past four years. He recalled re-writing a draft while sitting at home watching President Obama get elected. The conversations have a very contemporary feel to it, as if the characters are speaking to us through the ages to give us hope that even though we have tough decisions for the country today, we should trust our institutions. The universe, in all its grand complexity, leans slowly but surely toward justice. While Spielberg mentioned that he preferred the film to premiere after the election to evade being blamed of meddling in partisanship, Kushner welcomed the opportunity to participate in the process. "Working on the screenplay has really changed my politics and made me think much more seriously about the process of electoral democracy" said Kushner, "and I recognize that radical change can happen through true democratic means."

While the film was mostly shot in Petersburg, Virginia to take advantage of the historical buildings in the town, most of the scenes take place indoors. The profiles of the actors are dimly lit by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski with only a half-pulled back curtain or the glow of a fireplace, creating the mood that the weight of history is on the shoulders of these characters. It might not have the action sequences necessary for mass market appeal, but this will likely become mandatory viewing in elementary school classrooms across the U.S. If you are a fan of American history and politics, you will likely savor the lessons of this film. Opens wide November 16.

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