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Lincoln (2012)

| November 19, 2012 | 0 Comments

There is a moment deep into Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln that probably reveals more about the person of Abraham Lincoln than anything else that we could ever know about the man.  He asks a young telegraph operator “Do you think we are fitted to the times we are born to?”  It is a deep and difficult question that speaks, most aptly, to Lincoln himself.  Within the structural timeline of American History, Abraham Lincoln’s tenure upon this earth ended half a generation before voices and images began to be captured by recording devices.  His voice is lost to history and that, in effect, cements his legend because not knowing how he sounded or how he moved leaves us to interpret Lincoln any way we want.  We idolize him because we cannot humanize his flaws with our senses.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln tries to capture the essence of a man whose legacy is known to every American school child, not as a five dollar bill but as a man who has become the American ideal, a person who was born in poverty, self-educated, unbendingly honest, a deep thinker who was motivated by moral right.  He was also as shrewd and crafty as any politician in American history.  Apart from that, the movie also tries to find the very human essence that pulled Lincoln through a civil war, the end of slavery and personal tragedies that strained his marriage.

As played, in a beautiful performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, Abraham Lincoln is a calm, soft-spoken man with a whispering voice and a distinct Kentucky accent.  He is a charmer who is always telling stories (which irritates his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton).  He is a deep thinker who sees the issue of slavery as a moral crusade.  Around him are men who join in his crusade, but at his side is his wife Mary (Sally Field) who has shared with him a personal tragedy.  Some time ago they lost their young son to typhoid fever, and Mary’s very essence reveals the emotional weight of a mother bereft of her child, but also a 19th century society women who is forced to put away the pain and smile while greeting guests for a social occasion.  When the eldest son Robert expresses interest in joining the Union Army it leads to a conflict between the Lincolns that reveals some very surprising truths about their relationship.

Lincoln takes place in the last four months of the president’s life, a time that saw the end of the war and the difficult passage the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery.  Most of the movie deals with the inner-working of the 19th century political system and how the men who surrounded Lincoln helped him in his crusade to free the slaves and pull the Union back together.  Lincoln is willing to fight tooth and claw to get the amendment passed while many of those around him believe that it was an exercise in madness.  Those in opposition questioned what abolishment would mean to the social strata – what would Blacks want next?  Voting rights?  Integration?  Interracial marriage?  The Presidency?  Lincoln’s view was that slavery was immoral and that abolishing slavery would also mean pulling the financial structure out from under the Confederacy.  He asks the impossible.  He wants to abolish slavery, end the war and still be able to pull the southern states back into the union.

What is most surprising is that Lincoln is seen in this film not simply as humble and honest but as a shrewd politician who believed that the passage of the Amendment was so important that he was willing to bribe, threaten and make deals and promises to get the right number of votes.  The passage of the amendment is helped along by his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Straithairn) and by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) the Representative from Pennsylvania.  Stevens is seen as a gruff old codger who manages to wheel and deal with the power of his temperament.  He is a hard-nosed abolitionist whose agenda against slavery extends to more than just politics and legislation.  The critical job of getting Democrats to change their vote rests in the hands of three wheeler dealers (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) who know how to break the rules to get the job done. At one point, they literally force money into a the hands of one potential voter.

The details of the period are perfectly captured not just in the clothes or the sets but in the cinematography by Spielberg’s frequent collaborator Janusz Kaminski who establishes the interiors of the White House, not as a temple, but as a dimly lit trading house where deals are made and broken.  We don’t feel as if we are on a set, but in a real time and place.  There are shadows and dark images here that suggest more than the screenplay is saying.

The dialogue in the film is beautifully written by Tony Kushner from the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Many times, the film seems to halt just so Lincoln can have a personal aside.  In most cases that would be a fault, but here it is so well written and acted that it becomes mesmerizing.  Most surprising is that Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is spoken by young soldiers fresh from the battlefield who want to let Lincoln know that they have memorized it.  It is begun by two white soldiers and finished by another who is black.  It is a deeply moving moment.

In the weeks leading up to the film’s release a question has come up: Is the film historically accurate?  Only a historian would know for sure, but in all fairness, who cares?  This is not a documentary, it is drama and if it stretches facts for dramatic effect but keeps the basic structure of the historical outcome, it hardly matters.  What does matter is that Spielberg has created a wonderfully moving drama about the greatest struggle that our country ever faced, and how the time of that struggle was fitted with a man whose intelligence and moral convictions kept this country from perishing from the Earth.

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Straithairn (William Seward), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (Robert Todd Lincoln), Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair), James Spader (W.N. Bilbo).  Directed by Steven Spielberg.  Written by Tony Kushner from the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kerns Goodwin.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2012) View IMDB Filed in: Drama