With Lincoln Steven Spielberg has bolstered his already-impressive resume and cemented his status as not only America’s premiere filmmaker but also one of the best in the history of cinema. A magnificent achievement that is both a satisfying glimpse into a significant moment in history and a definitive portrait of an American icon, Lincoln blew me away. While the movie was not what I was expecting, what it provided was so much more than I could have imagined. Lincoln is wholeheartedly recommended.
The marketing materials for Spielberg’s film focus solely on the titular character but that is misleading. While he is the central figure, the story revolves around the political battle to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, banning slavery in the United States. There are wonderful performances from incredible actors including David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, John Hawkes and Jackie Earle Haley. But none hold a candle to--or will be mentioned with as much awe and reverence as--Daniel Day Lewis who creates the definitive portrait of Abraham Lincoln. His influence is felt as a specter hanging over the proceedings in the congressional chambers (or, more appropriately, a puppeteer making his marionettes dance). But this is not his film alone, and there is a fascinating story to be told about the political maneuvering needed to pass the 13th Amendment before the end of the Civil War.
Spielberg’s film reflects the even, thoughtful temperament of its primary subject. There are no villains in this movie, only people whose motivations seem contrary to our modern sensibility. It would be easy to craft a movie where proponents of keeping slavery legal were moustache-twirling sociopaths who just want to keep the black man down. Instead Spielberg allows them to have their say, which helps the audience understand history rather than merely taking a side and casting judgment. There are varying degrees of opposition including those who believe that ending slavery will prolong the bloody Civil War; those who believe that ending slavery would cripple the nation’s economy. Still others say that slavery is a moral wrong but must be weaned out because ending the practice too fast would lead to chaos. Rounding these perspectives out we can see their point but, in the light of history, just how very wrong they were.
Historical accuracy was incredibly important to the filmmakers but they are not slaves to the details. Spielberg, a deft storyteller, includes the moments that will make history buffs applaud but does not linger on them, rather leaving them to enhance the movie’s narrative. But the details of the legislative process and the (from a modern perspective) utter lack of decorum in the halls of Congress will be jarring for audiences accustomed to the droning and moralizing we see on C-Span. A nation still developing, our Congress was still comporting themselves like the brash houses of London. It was not unexpected that a speaker would be interrupted by the opposition with a cutting personal insult. In a way, though, the political maneuvering done by Lincoln and his allies in the Congress are reminiscent of more recent political struggles begun on moral grounds that were not widely popular. Act 10 in Wisconsin and Obamacare on the national level both reflect elements of the backroom dealing and promises that were proffered to gain needed votes for passage. While we’ve come far as a nation we have not strayed that far from our roots.
I would be remiss if I didn’t expend words on the brilliance of Daniel Day Lewis who again with Lincoln sets the bar impassibly high for other actors. No other could have brought the character to life with such perfection. DDL disappears into Lincoln, with his speech, posture and manner. There was but a moment when I saw a glint of the actor come through the eyes of the 16th President but it was a fleeting moment: Lewis presents the definitive portrayal of the President that will serve as a guide for the future. If he does not win an Oscar for Best Actor then all hope is lost for the Academy.
Lewis is surrounded by a cast that keeps pace with his brilliance, including Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his brash, rebellious son Robert (concluding the Year of JGL).
Some may find the film’s pacing slow, fixating on political maneuvering instead of the battles that are the usual focus of movies set in the period of the Civil War. Too, the film’s focus on a slice of time between Lincoln’s reelection and his assassination (spoiler: he dies in the end) rather than an epic story of his birth, education, and political career. Rather than be Braveheart, fixated on one person and glancing off issues of history, Lincoln is able to go into great detail of one monumental event in American history and the nuance of the time. This narrow focus is why Lincoln is such a brilliant, moving, and important film.
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