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Friday, October 26, 2012

Lincoln

LINCOLN

** SPOILERS **

"Shall we stop this bleeding?"

Steven Spielberg's stately, elegant Lincoln arrives at an opportune time, showing our current deeply divided country a United States even more deeply divided by four years of Civil War and torn apart by slavery and the Emancipation of African-Americans. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Based in part on the book "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodman, Lincoln is primarily concerned with the month of January 1865, the beginning of Abraham Lincoln's second term in office as President of the United States and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to free the slaves and simultaneously end the Civil War. 

Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't so much portray Abraham Lincoln as possess the idea of him and then find the nuances that make him human as opposed to the stuff of history book legend. We first meet Lincoln on the battlefield of Gettysburg, kindly speaking to black and white Union soldiers who amusingly repeat the Gettysburg Address to him word for word. By 1865, Lincoln is weathered, "aged ten years in the last year" observes Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris). The President, though "beloved by the people", is weary of war, of the squabbles of his Cabinet, of his domestic problems; usually he's found wrapped in a cloak in some corner of the White House, drinking coffee from a tin cup and relating amusing stories to whomever is listening which end up being brilliant parables. But Lincoln is also cunning and shrewd, capable of bending the laws as he sees fit and just; Day-Lewis delivers a mesmerizing monologue on Lincoln's justification for the Emancipation Proclamation and how Lincoln reconciled what exactly he saw his war powers to be as Commander in Chief. On the rare occasion Lincoln loses his temper to make a point, it's like thunder jolting from the skies. Day-Lewis' Lincoln has a sheen of perfection to him, but there's grit underneath, and his true feelings about slavery are held very closely to his vest, seeping out ever so slightly in a conversation he has with the White House's black housekeeper. 

In part a 19th century political thriller, Lincoln is filled to the brim of a stovetop hat with the machinations, legal and underhanded, the President, his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), and Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) utilized to procure the necessary votes to pass the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the broken, beaten Confederate states send their Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) and a contingent to sue for peace, which in itself proves a political liability for Lincoln's plans to pass the 13th Amendment. Lincoln also spotlights the difficulties of Lincoln's marriage with his grieving wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and his surviving sons Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who insists on abandoning a career in law to join the Union Army, and youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), who always seems to be underfoot as important matters of state are decided in Lincoln's crowded, hectic White House. There are electric scenes of squabble in the House of Representatives as politicians debate ending slavery and put the Amendment to a vote with the kind of creative name calling and insults that would send our modern cable news culture into an endless tizzy.

Lincoln is a thoughtful, powerful crowd-pleaser with only a few fleeting moments of rousing lift. Overall, it's as even-handed and comforting as its namesake. The overwhelming impression Spielberg and Day-Lewis leave with Lincoln is of a kind, intelligent, flawed, but forward-thinking leader. Abraham Lincoln possessed, in one word to sum him up, wisdom, a quality sorely missing, both then and today, in the majority of elected officials, if not the American people. Lincoln managed to reshape the United States for all time and for the better by sheer force of will and paid for it with his life; his assassination occurs, mercifully, off screen*, though we see him on his deathbed ("7:22am, April 15th. The President is no more.") Lincoln's last words in the film are "Well, it's time to go. But I wish I could stay." We do too, Mr. President. We do too.** There goes the best President we ever had.

* There is a moment towards the end where Lincoln could segueway right into Batman Begins. Frankly, Tad Lincoln could have become the Dark Knight, if he'd thought to do so.

** Does Abraham Lincoln have no living descendants? Is there no Lincoln DNA in the world? That's sad.

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