Being 'Lincoln'

Perhaps it's because Steven Spielberg so often finds the emotional sweet spot in his films — "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan" or last year's "War Horse" — that there is a sense that something is missing if he aims for a response that is more cerebral or detached.

"Lincoln" is such a studied film, absent high drama; rather it is a careful and compelling look at the last four months of Abraham Lincoln's life as a man and as a president.

The year is 1865, the Civil War, with all its carnage, continues, a rending wound. Our nation's precarious union has been unraveling, and the issue of slavery remains undecided. The politics of this painful issue are clearly unresolved in Washington as well as in the country at large.

In the breach stands Lincoln. An inordinately tall, spare man, stooped, seeming weary beyond endurance, as if the weight of responsibility presses his lean frame ever forward, the burden of leadership writ large in his deeply lined face, a seriousness, nay melancholia, marks his gaze.

What Spielberg achieves with "Lincoln" is not high drama, but an historically accurate portrayal of a man on the threshold of a momentous decision: it is Lincoln's intention to press Congress to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery for all time, before negotiating the end to the war. Lincoln knows that to find the votes to pass this astonishing piece of legislation is improbable at best. Entrenched prejudices and economic realities point to slavery being kept firmly in place until well after peace has been achieved with the South.

But Lincoln is convinced that he must not wait. Against all counsel, to include his cabinet and advisors, the time, he concludes, is now.

And so, "Lincoln" examines how the president waged gritty politics for a higher purpose, with countless set pieces featuring angry debates and impassioned conversations, of bribes and patronage and promises, all in the service of securing the necessary votes. Simultaneously, the film almost is a bill-passing procedural, a full-throated seminar capturing what was required of Lincoln and his Republican Party to extinguish slavery before extinguishing the Civil War.

The film — dense and multilayered, sepia in tone, shot by the gifted cinematographer Janusz Kaminski — feels like it's meant to be seen and seen again, approached like a text, Highlighter in hand, perused and parsed and thought about, viewed through an ever-changing prism.

It would be malpractice not to mention the startling and eloquent performance of Daniel Day-Lewis who, indeed, becomes Lincoln. It is a deeply human, restrained and transforming portrayal. Though Day-Lewis resembles Lincoln in face and stature, it is his subtle and nuanced demeanor, the cadence of his speech, the tone of his voice, the flash of his eyes that convince. All are, in the aggregate, arresting.

Clearly Day-Lewis reminds us that he is a master of his craft, who resisted turning this film into one more hagiography of Lincoln, offering instead a multidimensional portrait that is truly memorable.

The Sessions

"The Sessions" is an extraordinary film, adapted from a magazine article, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," by Mark O'Brien, a disabled man who contracted polio at the age of six and lived the rest of his life in an iron lung, a form of physical incarceration that never reached his agile mind or courageous spirit.

Mark (John Hawkes), 38, wishes to explore the limits of his sexuality. Though his body is bent, absent any volitional movement below the neck, he still has the capacity to feel the slightest touch.

With trepidation, he hires Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate, who agrees to spend six sessions with him.

What is revealed is not just that Mark can, to his initial chagrin and then joyous surprise, perform the sex act, but that he is a remarkable human being — courageous, wryly cynical, often sardonic — all while confined to either the lung or a rolling hospital bed, used to take him to his sessions with Cheryl as well as to quasi-confessionals with his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy).

At no time is "The Sessions" prurient or gratuitous or overly sentimental. But it always is emotive and touching and character-driven. Hunt and Hawkes are exceptional. Not since "As Good as it Gets" has Hunt been this good. And Hawkes is a gifted character actor. Recall "Winter's Bone," in which he portrays a backwoods meth dealer. "The Sessions," like the actors' performances, is rare and memorable.

— Chris Honoré

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