Friday, November 16, 2012

A Reel Review: LINCOLN

Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN is nothing like the typical Hollywood biopic which begins at the birth of the person and ends at their death or triumphant moment. It is instead an honest, intimate and revealing look at the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life and Presidency. On the surface, the decision to begin the story of President Lincoln in the 4th quarter of his life seems to be a head scratcher, but as LINCOLN unfolds, it becomes clear that this was the only story to be told; the most important deed ever done by Lincoln, which defined him and the country he loved.
The Civil War is nearing its end, and Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is pushing the passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, despite the doubts of his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn). Lincoln knows he must pass the Amendment before the war ends, and must ally himself with radical members of Congress such as Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to get the necessary votes.

Based on the novel TEAM OF RIVALS by Doris Kearns Goodwin, LINCOLN unfolds unlike any other drama to hit the big screen. It spends most of its time dealing with political maneuvering to get the necessary votes to abolish slavery. This maneuvering consists of backroom deals and negotiations just coming short of a bribe. It’s a fascinating look at the way the government was run back then, and it often feels like Spielberg found a way to get C-SPAN into the offices and chambers in the 1860’s. It is often dry and dense, and comes close to feeling like a drawn-out, feature-length LAW AND ORDER episode. However, there is no melodrama here, no embellished events to force an emotional response, no sappy bookends or overdrawn weepy speeches; just raw politicking.
However, Spielberg never forgets who or what the human center of the film is; Abraham Lincoln himself. The character shoulders the burdens of the war-torn country, his grieving wife, his oldest son who probably hates him (played brilliantly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the peace negotiations with the Southern armies, and the backlash from his want to abolish slavery. On top of all these burdens he must carry, Spielberg makes excellent strides in making Lincoln a likeable human. Using history as a reference, Lincoln is a lovable family man with great intelligence and penchant for telling stories to get his point across. He is an extraordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, but above all else he is human, and LINCOLN never lets us forget that.

And bringing Abe to life is the extraordinary Daniel Day-Lewis, who absolutely vanishes inside the character. From the moment he first appears on screen to the moment he fades away, the fact that it is Daniel Day-Lewis is forgotten. He dominates the screen and pulls you in, making you feel every ounce of his burden. As great as he carries the man, perhaps his best moments are when he does not speak at all; it is tempered to the point where as he listens, you feel like you are listening along with him. There is a deep spirituality to the performance which Day-Lewis has not ventured into before. It is nothing short of breathtaking.
Surrounding Day-Lewis are outstanding performances by an outstanding cast. Sally Field is great as Mary Todd, and their scenes together are great, albeit so real it almost hurts to watch them. Acting is out-of-this-world from the cast; David Strathairm, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Halbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Gloria Reuben, and Jared Harris (as General Grant) are all incredible.

Backed by John Williams’ pretty-good score, Spielberg’s touch in LINCOLN is very gentle; probably his most tempered work to date. It is powerful but never forces anything; earning every bit of payoff it offers. And when that payoff comes, the most important moment in the history of the United States is made clear by LINCOLN the film, and Lincoln the man.

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