One of the many, many smart decisions made by director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner when developing Lincoln was not to make it a traditional bio-pic of the 16th U.S. president. Instead, they confined the main story to a one-month period: January 1865, when it could be argued that Abraham Lincoln won his greatest victory. The movie could as easily (and accurately) have been titled The Battle for the 13th Amendment. Spielberg shows no need to dramatize Lincoln’s life as a series of “greatest hits.” The Gettsyburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation are both referenced but neither is depicted. The assassination occurs off-screen. However, by showing the private and public struggle to both free the slaves and end the war, Lincoln paints a powerful and compelling portrait of the man who has become an icon. We don’t need to see more of his life to understand how rare a figure he was – this window is more than sufficient.
Lincoln is rightfully credited with saving the Union. He is regarded as an idealist and opportunist who accomplished what no other president before him attempted. We read about him in history books and come away with the impression that he was a great man without perhaps recognizing all the elements that contributed to his greatness. Lincoln shows us an intelligent, folksy person whose greatest assets are his conscience and his ability to play the game of politics as well as any man. Frequently underestimated by his opponents, he outwits and outmaneuvers more seasoned veterans and comes away with a win that alters the course of history. In between the maneuvers, he takes time offer parables and tell stories (like the one about Ethan Allen and the privy). If you’re not entirely sure why Lincoln is universally regarded as one of the greatest U.S. presidents going into this movie, you’ll have no doubts by the time it’s over.
Lincoln is part character study and part period piece political thriller. It’s about all the tactics, some of which would be considered “dirty” by today’s dubious standards (including, but not limited to, patronage positions as bribes), employed by Lincoln to forge the bipartisan coalition necessary in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery). To do this, he must avoid even a single Republican defection and gain at least 20 votes from Democrats. Initially, the task seems impossible but Lincoln is relentless in his pursuit of victory. At the same time, he seeks to close out the war on his terms (meaning that the passage of the 13th Amendment is not a bargaining chip in discussions with the Confederacy). The desire of his oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to join the army creates tension between Abraham and his wife, Mary (Sally Field).
As strong as Lincoln is in presenting a richly detailed portrait of the title character, it is equally effective in illustrating how the government worked in the 1860s. Those who believe partisan bitterness is a modern infection need look no further than the Capitol during the House’s discourse about the13th Amendment to recognize how civil today’s bickering is. Some of the insults hurled by the likes of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) would shock and outrage congressman today. Some things never change, however, like the under-the-table deals and compromises mandated to avoid gridlock. Also noteworthy is the ease with which normal citizens once gained access to both the president and the White House. Lincoln’s office has more of the feel of a saloon backroom than hallowed ground.
The film’s themes are powerful but Lincoln stands as tall as it does because of a series of amazing performances, none more towering than that of Daniel Day-Lewis. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to prognosticate that not only will Day-Lewis garner an Oscar nomination for his work here, but he will probably win. Even with as impressive a resume as his is (which already includes Best Actor citations for My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood), this is a career performance. Actors have won top honors for far less riveting portrayals. Day-Lewis doesn’t just play Lincoln; he inhabits him. It’s as remarkable a clinic of acting as I have seen – far, far beyond mere mimicry. The physical resemblance doesn’t hurt, but this isn’t a case of Day-Lewis looking like President #16 – it’s a case of his becoming him.
Impressive secondary performances abound as well, and there will be Oscar nominations as well in supporting categories. Sally Field, as Lincoln’s unstable wife, stands a good chance, as does Tommy Lee Jones as the fiery, passionate Thaddeus Stevens. Additional possibilities include Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair and David Strathairn as Secretary of State Seward (although Strathairn’s fine portrayal may be too understated for the Academy to recognize). There are other recognizable names in the cast as well, including James Spader, John Hawkes, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose 2012 resume is astonishing in its versatility.
For Spielberg, this represents a welcome return to form, and a reaffirmation that he remains capable of accomplishing remarkable things on a movie screen. After last year’s twin disappointments of The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, it’s refreshing to see Spielberg rebound. Lincoln is perhaps not quite on the same level as Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List, but it can stand alongside any of the other “serious” films the great director has made.
History-based movies need not be history lessons but the best of them, like Lincoln, bring the past vividly to life. Over the years, I have read countless books about Lincoln’s presidency and The Civil War, but there were things in Lincoln of which I was unaware. More importantly, at no time have I felt as close to the real-life figure as I did while watching Spielberg’s movie: not when standing at the base of his statue in the Lincoln Memorial, not when gazing up at the President’s Box in Ford’s Theater, and not when immersed in any book, TV program, or movie. If Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter left behind a vaguely unpalatable aftertaste, Lincoln is the perfect solution with which to wash it away.
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(Republished with permission from the acclaimed film review website http://www.reelviews.net/movies.php run by noted film critic James Berardinelli)