America is torn asunder. Brother is fighting brother on the bloody battlefield as Union and Confederate forces kill one another in the struggle for freedom and democracy. At stake is the manumission of an entire subjugated race of slaves, the backbone of the Confederate economy and one of the major reasons for the war itself. In the House of Representatives, various factions scrabble and squabble for control: anti-slavery Republicans, conservative Republicans, and pro-slavery Democrats.
The man at the center of the conflict is Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis). He is a good man, but a political outsider playing a very difficult game as he tries to corral the necessary votes to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which abolishes slavery. It’s up to Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), to both ensure the Republican majority in the House stays a solid block by wrangling influential supporters like Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), anti-slavery firebrands like Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), and buying the votes of lame-duck Democrats and those with abolitionist leanings into supporting the bill.
Needless to say, politics is a messy business, and it likely will always be a messy business of deals, pandering, pork-barrel spending, and favours for favours. Lincoln, despite being a good man, is not afraid to get his hands dirty and expend his political capital to both end the war and end the issue of slavery once and for all. However, can Lincoln get the amendment passed before the end of the conflict, or will he fall short of his goal?
Lincoln has a staggering ensemble cast of some of the best actors working today, of all ages and experience levels. Not counting the main players, this movie features Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, and Walton Goggins among the many noteworthy names. However, the three main players, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and David Strathairn, are incredible. Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader steal scenes when given the chance, but nobody really overshadows Daniel Day Lewis. His take on Lincoln is remarkable to behold.
Unlike the other actors, who still resonated with me as being themselves, Daniel Day-Lewis is nothing if not the soul of Lincoln returned to Earth. He moves with the hunched back of the very tall; he embodies Lincoln’s humor, warmth, and melancholy perfectly. This is the performance of a career, and matching him blow-for-blow is Sally Field, who might have been as good a Mary Todd Lincoln as anyone could have hoped for. Still, what puts Day-Lewis over the top is his physical work. It’s very impressive on his part, and it makes his Lincoln feel real.
While Lincoln concerns itself mostly with the intrigues of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and plays out mostly in smoky back rooms or the halls of the House of Representatives where white men in suits argue and cajole one another, Lincoln is never not entertaining. Tony Kushner has taken Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln, and turned it into an incredible piece of work.
It’s surprisingly funny while being absolutely riveting, and it balances the horror of war and its effect on Lincoln with the dirty dealings needed to get any deal through Congress—both then and now. The dialogue may be a bit hard for modern ears to follow, but it is easy enough to grasp without losing the character of 19th Century oratory. Indeed, it transforms politics into something exciting and tense, and turns political lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) into charming weasels.
Steven Spielberg remains a great director. He knows what he’s doing behind the camera, and nobody makes an epic movie feel personal quite like him. Lincoln is every bit a historical epic, from the opening bloody combat reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan to the sweeping shots of Congress, Lincoln writing at his desk, and a brilliant shot of Lincoln walking from his office to the door to attend a night at the theater (that should have been the movie’s final image). Janusz Kaminski manages to make Lincoln’s Washington DC look both like the grubby swamp town and the place of monuments and idealism it is.
Despite a very long runtime, Spielberg keeps the film moving quickly from scene to scene, never lingering too long on one segment or cutting away too early. Lincoln, unlike the 13th Amendment, never gets bogged down in committee. It’s an achievement in storytelling from one of America’s master craftsmen of cinema magic.
Lincoln opens on the 25th January 2013 in the UK.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan is proud to see a Kentucky boy like Abe Lincoln get his due on the big screen. Never mind the dozens of other Lincoln movies out there. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.
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