Big Screen Ballyhoo – “Lincoln”

Apparently, my post for a couple days ago disappeared into the aether. I’m not fond of that at all. I should have one up tomorrow.

Over Thanksgiving break, my parents and I got into a bit of a row about politics… frankly, it was to be expected. Partly because I’m right and they’re wrong. But, seriously. During our argument, it was said at some point, in a sort of rhetorical sense, “When has America ever been more divided?” This was an attempt by my mother, I believe, to say that President Barack Obama is tearing the nation apart, because it’s definitely his fault and not a bunch of people being hard-headed fools unable to differentiate between their own pomp and the good of the country. Even though it was rhetorical, I decided to answer anyway.

“Gee, I dunno. There was that whole Civil War thing we had, I’m pretty sure the country was kinda divided then.”

Strangely enough, a president can be liked enough to be voted in during a contentious election, and sometimes by an overwhelming majority… but once in, he can be truly reviled. We see that a lot with Obama, with Republicans in and out of Congress treating him almost like a second class citizen during his first term. The question is, how will he be remembered in 100, 150 years?

Abraham Lincoln is one of our most memorable, historically well-liked presidents. He saw the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery instituted. He led the country through one of our worst conflicts. He was an eloquent speaker, highly intelligent and, a very well-liked quality in presidents, he was brief. Ultimately, he was assassinated, which has often actually improved a leader’s view in history’s eyes.

Yet, for all we know about Lincoln, most never really learn anything beyond the basic facts: Civil War, tall, wore a top hat, Emancipation Proclamation, assassinated. What Steven Spielberg brings to life in “Lincoln” is perhaps the first truly immersive, in depth view of Lincoln’s final few months, creating a compelling story through directing, writing and acting that will surely snag some awards this coming awards season.

“Lincoln” focuses almost entirely on January 1965, not long after Lincoln’s reelection, after the war had gone on for nearly four years. Lincoln, disgusted with slavery, had hoped to abolish it entirely before the end of the war, hoping to sway popular opinion by painting it as a means to swiftly end the Southern will to fight. However, with everyone feeling the war will be coming to a rapid close, popular opinion threatens to escape his grasp. Therefore, Lincoln finds himself attempting to pass the amendment in less than a month. Lacking the necessary Republican votes before the new session of the House of Representatives, he and his colleagues are forced to attempt to sway the minds of the Democrats that vehemently oppose the amendment.

At times, it was reminiscent of “The West Wing,” watching the wheelings and dealings of how laws (or amendments) come to pass. When fighting against a stacked deck, there’s a lot of wheeling and dealing to be had. But the film went beyond that to show Lincoln as a man and president, husband and father. The movie shows his struggles with his depressed and chronically pained wife Mary Todd, his love for his son Tad and troubles with his son Robert, his passion and fire and remorse and intelligence and humor… his humanity.

Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln in the film, truly becoming the man entirely. Day-Lewis is always a force on screen, but it’s possible that this is his best performance yet. The empathy of Lincoln and his drive are made fully clear through Day-Lewis’ performance, which never falters for a moment. Yet, he is not the only powerful performance on the screen. Sally Field shows herself as a strong, spirited woman, though very flawed and perhaps too human, in Mary Todd Lincoln, both fighting against and encouraging her husband through his trials. Tommy Lee Jones as the strongest proponent for the Amendment, playing Representative Thaddeus Stevens, gives a nuanced, witty performance that lies atop of a man unsure of whether he should sacrifice his moral high ground for the legal victory.

There are so many talented people in this film. David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (unrecognizably, I think) as Robert Lincoln, even Jared Harris in his smaller role as Ulysses S. Grant. They and so many others (Hal Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Jackie Earl Haley, etc.) create a truly inspiring and awe-inducing environment that looks to the future and says, “You think you have it bad?” Seriously, I half expected a fist fight in the House at some point. The world of the war-torn nation is delivered beautifully, and the details in the historical representation, down to the almost unnoticeable details in speech (righteous being pronounced “rye-tee-us” for example), are astounding. This will surely be a contender for Best Picture, in that it has so many elements come together so strongly.

If you are a fan of history, this is a good film to watch. If you enjoy watching good performances on screen, watch this movie. If you like solid writing, drama not overwrought, comedy not overplayed, this movie will serve you well. If you enjoy good costuming, beautiful scoring, great camera work or nuanced directing, you should look into watching this movie. And, really, if you just want a movie that you can watch and enjoy for a couple hours… you could certainly do far worse than “Lincoln.”

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