Movie review: Lincoln

Published January 15, 2013

His tall frame silhouetted in the distance, a man physically bent by the weariness of what he believes to be morally imperative, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States occupies a 19th century rustic, candle-lit White House.

Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” paints a masterful portrait of America’s most endeared president during a time of deep moral crisis — a president trying to hold together a country that is tearing at its seams.

Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a stunning performance, in a role it now feels he was genetically programmed to play. His voice is a whisper of a quiver and carries the pain and agony of a man physically bruised by the weight of what he believes to be genuinely wrong.

“Lincoln” begins with a quick depiction of the Civil War, as men with muskets and bayonets fight hand to hand in the mud and gore. It doesn’t have the gut wrenching blockbuster gravitas ala “Saving Private Ryan” but it gives the requisite sense of time and place.

Spielberg does not give the audience a chronological biography of Lincoln as president. In fact what is truly the master stroke of this movie is what is not shown.

There are references to the Civil War, mentions of the Gettysburg address, and the eventual coup de grace at Ford Theatre, but all of it happens off camera. Spielberg has made the conscious decision to focus on what was Lincoln’s greatest accomplishment — the abolition of slavery.

"If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong," Lincoln is credited to have said. And we see this come to life in Tony Kushner’s brilliant screenplay, an adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin's “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”

The film artfully captures the dilemma Lincoln faced in the waning months of his presidency: To bring an end to the war and to abolish the slave trade once and for all.

And even though the goal that consumed him wore on him, Spielberg shows that the lawyer-turned-politician had the political savvy to navigate the political wheeling and dealing he knew he was going have to endure if he was to win over the anti-abolitionist and intransigent Democrats in the House of Representatives.

Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is about the process of the American political system and the often cynical cunning it requires to master it. It’s a Lincoln we’ve never seen.

It is all the more fascinating given the deeply polarized political climate in America today, and the reversal of roles of the two parties as Republicans fight tooth and nail to oppose a Democratic black president in Barack Obama.

But more than anything, the genius of Spielberg is his humanizing of an American icon.

Day-Lewis’s portrayal coupled with Kushner's prose, takes Lincoln the historical figure and turns him into a person we can all realistically imagine — a man of wit, grace and wisdom.

One of the more humourous moments of the movie is when the president quips, “I could write shorter sermons but when I get started I'm too lazy to stop,” as he jokes with members of his cabinet.

It has almost become banal to laud Day-Lewis for any character he plays, because he makes it look so easy. It’s like Mozart playing a symphony, or Baryshnikov dancing on stage. His channeling of Honest Abe though clears even those lofty expectations. His ability to assume whole identities has become almost alchemical if not paranormal.

But apart from Day-Lewis there are some stellar performances, especially from Tommy Lee Jones, as the Pennsylvania "Radical Republican" Thaddeus Stevens who delivers one the film’s highlight moments extolling a senator from Ohio.

Sally Field brings believability to the quirky, if not slightly loony, Mary Todd Lincoln, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, failed to really establish himself and came off as more of a tangential character to give the film some breathing room away from the crux of the movie.

"Lincoln" depicts a turning point in America's history, and Spielberg takes us to the eye of the storm, and the man who stood tall in the face of staunch opposition willing to sacrifice anything for doing what he believed was a moral obligation. It’s a lesson in statesmanship and a lesson in the chess game that is American politics.

With 12 Oscar nominations already in the bag, “Lincoln” is without doubt going to be an award season favourite. And if I were Daniel Day-Lewis I’d be making some space on my mantelpiece for another golden statue.

The writer is a reporter at Dawn.com

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