‘Lincoln’ Review: History can be enthralling

Lincoln offers a poignant glimpse into the life of a man who quietly strides out of the history books and into the hearts of audience members in both 1865 and 2012. While watching this film you are able to enjoy the unique character of Abraham Lincoln as well as the political system in which he participated as President in just a short span of time.

Photo: 20th Century Fox

When one hears the word “biopic,” he or she may envision a stuffy history lesson on the subject’s date of birth, upbringing, schooling, career, love life and death, with highlights of accomplishments and failures along the way. What director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner do is capture a moment in time where the hero of the story is in his element that we love, yet is still humanely portrayed at times to be just another man of the people, not immortal. The film focuses less on Lincoln’s life story and more on his political process during the last four months of his life.

Based partly on the biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the film centers around United States President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) attempting to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in the House of Representatives abolishing slavery before the Civil War is over (which is increasingly imminent in January of 1865 after Lincoln is re-elected). If Lincoln fails to pass the amendment before the Civil War ends, it stands little hope of being accepted. Although we know the ending, tensions flare as Lincoln grasps onto last-minute voters who may go either way if prodded by the right man. His ideals are at odds with men in the South, the North, the House of Representatives, and even his own cabinet, but Lincoln holds fast to his faith in justice and asks the same from his countrymen.

Daniel Day-Lewis brilliantly captures the character of the 16th president with what could believably be his mannerisms and he does not overplay the part, as tempting as it probably is for an actor. He carries himself with a self-conscious yet powerful presence that makes the audience aware his wheels are turning behind those steely eyes without giving too much away. Day-Lewis’ humble presence helps humanize the timeless copper face on our penny, as he interacts with his sons (with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln), his wife (a heartbreaking Mary Todd portrayed by Sally Field), and even the men of the South. We get to see him make mistakes while at the same time experiencing great triumph.

Photo: 20th Century Fox

The colorful ensemble of actors breathe modern life into their historic counterparts, creating dynamic confrontations and delicious debates. Tommy Lee Jones delivers some choice dialogue as Thaddeus Stevens, influencing some of the most profound and hilarious scenes in the film. James Spader’s W.N. Bilbo leads a comical team of “lobbyists” who try to sway voters to their side in order to pass the amendment in time, whose scenes help alleviate the historical heaviness of the film.

Lincoln succeeds in dwelling on a specific point in time for the subject of the biography while at the same time capturing a lifetime of character for Abraham Lincoln as if we knew him all along. Perhaps it helps by having the audience already somewhat familiar with the time period, but even still, the pacing and character development in the film is satisfying. The story is not a sweeping epic on the trials of being President during the Civil War, but a quiet examination of the political process seen through the eyes of a man with an extremely intelligent, determined, yet idealistic soul. It also focuses greatly on many other characters during the period with whom Lincoln interacts, making it feel more like a film about politics than just one man.

Photo: 20th Century Fox

Nevertheless, I would not mind if Lincoln would receive the John Adams (2008) treatment as a miniseries. I couldn’t help but draw the similarities to two very distinct yet similar moments in time – men completely self-aware they were living history, ever mindful of how their views would hold up in posterity. This film showcases not just the man but the time in which he lived, and how important it was to have him lead our country away from such a bloody age in history. It would be interesting to delve even further into the life story of Abraham Lincoln.

You need to be a bit of a history and politics lover if you want to see Lincoln, as it’s an endless barrage of political jargon and 19th century names thrown at you all at once, but you must already know that if you’ve seen a trailer beforehand. Therefore, with the stellar combination of Spielberg, a beautiful patriotic score by John Williams, excellent casting and dynamic screenwriting, this film is an unexpected (well, pretty expected) treat for the holiday season in my book.

Lincoln Grade: A-


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