Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is brilliant, stirring, and a sure-fire contender for the Oscars.
As a middle school history teacher, I am amazed by the interest my students have about the Civil War; every year, they consistently question why 620,000 Americans felt the need to defend their stance on slavery with the ultimate sacrifice. They wonder what kind of a society allowed for the expansion of slavery, and how our nation cleansed itself of the "peculiar institution," as coined by American politicians and pundits throughout the 1860's. But more than anything, they wonder about the people involved in its abolition, including its central figure, Abraham Lincoln. With recent articles suggesting the death toll might have topped a staggering 750,000, Hollywood in 2012 has responded with two films about Lincoln, each with its own unique take on his life. The latter, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, is an emotionally charged, powerful, and stirring account of the 16th President's efforts to pass the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865.
As the nation in 1864 struggles to end the Civil War, with seemingly no end in sight, President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood) decides to take his Emancipation Proclamation one step further: end slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States. The news comes as a shock to his cabinet, comprised mostly of his political enemies including Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn, Sneakers), who thinks Lincoln should focus on ending the bloody conflict rather than passing such a superfluous law. While the old rail splitter looks disshelved and certainly not presidential, Lincoln is a shrew politician and humanitarian, convinced that society cannot begin Reconstruction without first banning slavery. Many in the House of Representatives, including Democrats lead by Fernando Wood (Lee Pace, The Fall) fear that Lincoln's plan is a direct threat to the South's way of life, leading to volatile sessions between Wood and the Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive). Although Stevens signs on to get the amendment passed, his support won't be enough; recognizing his situation, Lincoln authorizes Seward to employ a trio of rascally characters (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) to offer patronage jobs to outgoing Democrats in exchange for their votes. The result is some of the film's funniest scenes, with the trio literally chasing men down in the street, in large fields, and at public taverns with large documents in their hands. But the film also weaves a vivid portrait of the president himself, surrounded by his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field, Forest Gump) and son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Looper). These scenes represent the story at its most powerful and poignant, as Lincoln struggles to keep Robert from enlisting in the Army and Mary from melting down over their son Willie's recent death from typhoid fever. As the critical vote in Congress nears, Lincoln finds his needed support in the least likely of places, concluding in a series of brilliant exchanges between Stevens and Wood on the House floor, most of which match exactly to language used during the period.
Lincoln is nothing short of stunning, both in its historical accuracy and in the performances of its actors. Based on the book Team of Rivals by presidential historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin, Lincoln leaves nothing on the table. From dimly-lit period room lighting to hideously accurate hair pieces and beards, Director Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark) crosses every historical 'T', making Lincoln appear as nearly a legitimate legal document. Simply put, Spielberg has gone beyond anything he's ever created, respecting the story of the debate, Lincoln himself, and the history surrounding them with amazing clarity. In many ways, he's accurately shown how the legislative process works in our country by making it more of a conversation that eventually morphs into larger change. Granted, these discussions could be unruly, even downright rude at times, but it also demonstrates that multiple views of the world should not necessarily lead to immobility, unless those in charge refuse to see the larger effect such policies can have on the country. And while the cavalcade of supporting actors is nothing less than top-notch, this is Daniel Day-Lewis' film, with his vivid portrayal of our nation's leader as both a homespun-folksy conversationalist and tormented soul whose assassination only served to elevate his status . Believe me when I say that Lewis is Lincoln - from his gangling walk to his attenuated voice - a man whose quiet demeanor was matched only by the moroseness and tragedy of the time in which he lived. You can almost feel the incredible weight on his broad shoulders as he tours a fallen Southern city before visiting General Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) to discuss the end of the War. When Grant tells Lincoln, "You've aged ten years since I saw you last year," we believe it both in the tired strain in Lincoln's voice and the physical transformation in his face which photographs have sadly captured. By film's end, we know what it's like to be in his presence, making every analogy he weaves (and he loved to make them) that much more effective. As things wind down to their inevitable conclusion, Composer John Williams (Star Wars) presents such a simple but elegant piece that audiences might feel the need to stand up to warn the President of his impending doom.
If the violent side of the Civil War is your thing, then Lincoln will seem tedious and self-serving, determined at-once to re-write Mary Todd's reputation as a headcase who suffered from migraines while arguing for compromise in our modern and twisted political climate. I can only hope that moviegoers will emerge from the darkened theaters a changed people, in much the same way we changed after viewing Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List. Lincoln is so much more, not merely a biopic but a statement of presidential power, a comment on our current government's need to balance its message to forward the goals of our nation, all wrapped up in a stirring rendition that will be dissected for years to come. I hope Spielberg and Lewis return one day to tell more stories about Lincoln, a great leader whose life was tragically cut short during a time of extraordinary national unrest. Lincoln is rated PG-13 and has a runtime of 149 minutes.
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