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Lincoln A Terrific Movie: The Best Spielberg in Years

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner from, in part, by the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Touchstone, 2012

What I tell people when they ask me who my favorite director of all time is “Steven Spielberg.”  And this gets some shocked looks at times, mainly because there are better directors in the history of time.  But no one like Spielberg has ever captured my imagination more.  I base this on an impeccable record from his earlier days, from Jaws to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Raiders of the Lost Ark to E.T. I can watch those movies at any time.  I really enjoyed Jurassic Park.  I think Schindler’s List is incredible.  Saving Private RyanMinority Report.  There are moments in his 2005 double releases War of the Worlds and Munich that are amazing.

The biggest criticism of some of his movies is that they aren’t perfect.  Take Saving Private Ryan.  Many like to point out that it’s a movie with an incredible beginning and an incredible end, but all that’s in between isn’t nearly as good.  I disagree, and those same people will tell you Full Metal Jacket is a classic without thinking about how the highs and lows of that movie are structured.

Still, Spielberg can be a big letdown at times, especially considering that he has the power and the money to get anything he wants made.  So why War Horse?  And why The Adventures of Tintin?  Movies that were OK or mediocre released just last year.  He’s still got a little of that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull stench on him too.  And when he takes the “sincere” route, you can get a Schindler’s List, or you can get an Amistad or Empire of the Sun (again, movies that had moments, but weren’t quite all there).

Lincoln is his best dramatic film since Schindler’s List, or best overall since Minority Report.  It focuses on a small period of time in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln (played to absolute perfection by Daniel Day-Lewis) was trying to get the 13th Amendment, the amendment abolishing slavery, passed during a critical juncture in the waning months of the Civil War.  Its passing would be a difficult one, as House Democrats (led by George Pendleton, played by Peter McRobbie of Boardwalk Empire) of the existing Union at the time were opposed to setting 4 million black people free all at once.  House Republicans were mostly in favor, but several in the party were opposed even though they hated slavery.

The issue is complex: with the Union wanting to seek a peaceful resolution to the Civil War, an end to the war too soon would mean that Southern representatives would be back in Washington and would easily kill the vote.  A vote against slavery could also mean that the war could go on forever, despite signs that the South was tiring.  Also, the Emancipation Proclamation was a war-powers document, in which Lincoln declared the slaves in the Confederate states free, but could be claimed by the Union as property after battles.  Lincoln did this to shore up Union numbers in the Army, but the constitutionality of the proclamation could get him in hot water later if the war ends, slavery isn’t abolished, and now there’s a bunch of free slaves wandering around that could be reclaimed by the South.  Lincoln has to play by a different set of rules here, a necessary “throwing out the book.”

The biggest cheerleader in Congress is Pennsylvania representative Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, who is great).  Stevens tries to unite the majority Republican party to pass the bill, and try to destroy the credibility and the stance of the Democrats while carefully, articulately, making his stance known.  Meanwhile, Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward (David Stathairn) enlist three “lobbyists” W.M. Bilbo (James Spader, in his usual, entertaining eccentric personality he plays these days), Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), and Robert Latham (John Hawkes) to make deals behind the scenes to get the representatives who are on the fence to swing the right way.

We all know how this ends: but Spielberg somehow makes this an amazing feat of suspense, much like Ron Howard did with Apollo 13.  And you really realize what a miracle this all is.  They need 2/3 of the vote for the measure to pass, and truly a single vote one way or another can swing it.

Spielberg also sort of dials down his heavy approach to serious drama here, letting the actors work and staying out of the way, while still inflecting the movie with his touches now and again.  If there is a couple of criticisms, it would be that Lincoln’s family life, in scenes with his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and his oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are lacking when it comes to the crux of the main story.  It does show the personal sacrifices Lincoln had to make in his own family when it came to the decisions he had to make, but these scenes come off a slight bit hollow.  Also, there seems to be a major actor in every role, and that can get distracting at times.  Fine turns from Hal Holbrook, Bruce McGill, the great character actor Michael Stuhlbarg, Jackie Earle Haley (who pretty much looks like his character, Alexander Stephens), Jarid Harris (as Ulysses S. Grant), and more can function to make this movie, at times, feel like a “cavalcade of stars.”

But this movie is Day-Lewis and Jones all the way.  Especially Day-Lewis, who plays Lincoln with very little of the thunderous over-the-top nature of his past two famous performances in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood.  There are a couple of controlled outbursts, but you’ll be remembering the many times Lincoln walks into a room and mesmerizes those to whom he speaks.  He’s always got a good story, he’s a thinking-man’s hero.  What’s amazing is how popular he was and he still had to struggle to get this amendment passed.

What’s more: this movie doesn’t make the eye-rolling attempt to make us believe that the people in the 1860’s had a 2012 idea of race.  A brilliant scene with Lincoln and a former slave Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) shows that Lincoln has a progressive attitude about race, an optimistic but not over-optimistic one.  It would be easy to put words in the mouth of Lincoln and have him say words that a person from the modern era would say, but writer Tony Kushner (Munich, Angels in America) doesn’t do that.  Kushner’s script is also a star here.  It’s engrossing and witty.

As you can tell, easily one of my favorite movies of the year.  A fantastic portrait of a difficult time, perfectly illustrating the complexities of the 13th Amendment and embodied with excellent character.

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