An historical drama that is as entertaining as it is educationally rewarding. Should be required viewing in all history classes across this nation.
Let’s face it, Steven Spielberg owed all movie fans a Christmas gift this year following his messy War Horse thrust upon us during the past holiday season. He can now be officially forgiven, as Lincoln is an historic masterpiece by any definition. Sure, it helped that he had the great Tony Kushner write the screenplay with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s (Team of Rivals author) assistance, but let’s give credit where credit is due.
Ironically, it is not going to be everyone’s cinematic cup of tea, as it functions more effectively as a play than a film. Lasting two hours and thirty minutes, those who don’t consider themselves to be history fans are likely to find Lincoln a bit lengthy if not occasionally tedious.
But there was a reason I majored in history in college, and I found this whole blasted film utterly as powerful as it was intellectually stimulating. From beginning to end it involves little more than an analysis of the backroom political deals cut in early 1864 to get the 13th Amendment passed, and it serves as a mirror into similar wheeling and dealing going on in Washington today relating to solving the so-called fiscal crisis.
For example, how many of you knew that the 13th Amendment banning slavery in this country passed the House of Representatives by only 2 votes? How many of you knew that Congressmen from New York and Connecticut voted against its passage? Did any of you realize that the Amendment’s chief sponsor, Thaddeus Stevens, here played in a quietly powerful performance by Tommy Lee Jones, was actually sleeping with his African American maid?
But as important as Lincoln is in demonstrating the ugly realities of getting deals done in Washington, this film simply has to be seen to observe the colossal performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln. While there are a number of very fine performances surrounding Mr. Day-Lewis, you never really lose sight of their true identities. Sally Field does a credible job as Mary Todd Lincoln, but it’s really hard to forget her as TV’s “The Flying Nun” (1967-1970) or as the union leader playing Norma Rae in the movie of the same name. (1979).
Along that same line, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward and Hal Holbrook as Attorney General Preston Blair had fine moments participating in Cabinet debates with the President, but you never really feel lost in history while watching their credible performances. However, there is simply no denying that Mr. Day-Lewis soon becomes Abraham Lincoln, and it is truly overwhelming from beginning to end.
The movie takes place from early 1864 through the President’s death in April of that year, and the carnage of the Civil War is never lost for a moment. You see President Lincoln simultaneously battling for the Amendment to ban slavery as he is urged to cut a deal with Confederate envoys who offer to end the war if they can keep their slaves.
It would be unfair not to point out that an unrecognizable Jackie Earle Haley plays Alexander Stephens, the spokesman for the Confederate team. Clearly, he has made a career out of playing very creepy characters in such fun films as Dark Shadows (2012); Shutter Island (2010) and Watchmen (2009). Thus, why should anyone assume that he wouldn’t be perfectly qualified to play a Confederate leader who has no inward moral compass despite his otherwise normal appearance?
In addition, President Lincoln has to deal with the frustrations of his son Robert, a young man who feels compelled to participate in the war to save his own honor. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is again quite good as the young Mr. Lincoln, and he only adds to a significant resume. For example, think of his performance opposite Bruce Willis in this year’s Looper; his wonderful contribution to last year’s Inception and this year’s The Dark Knight Rises; and a spectacularly moving and also very funny portrayal of a young man with cancer in 50/50 (2011).
What you observe in Day-Lewis’ performance of President Lincoln is a determined, nearly exhausted man trying to save a country and its future. He doesn’t want his son to die in battle, but how can he prevent it when hundreds of thousands of other parents have lost a child? While he knows that the soul of our country requires the elimination of slavery, he’s not about to ignore cutting backroom deals to get it done. In that regard, James Spader and John Hawkes, here playing W.M. Bilbo and Robert Latham, are quite good as the ascerbicly comical bag men who will do what is necessary to get the President’s job done.
As I watch the debate going on in Washington today following November’s election, I couldn’t help but wonder what President Lincoln’s reaction would be. Despite the horrendous consequences of the four-year Civil War, Lincoln still faced a Congress that fought his attempts to rid the nation of enslaving its citizens.
Likewise confronting a four-year struggle where working people of this country have been severely damaged by our horrible recent Recession, President Obama faces similar opposition in his attempts to force well-off wealthy citizens like Governor Romney to pay a fair tax rate. How can Washington turn its head when citizens like Mr. Romney, a person making over $10 million a year, is paying a lower tax rate than police officers and schoolteachers?
Let me close with this observation about the death of President Lincoln. While we live in a country that continues to ignore the consequences of permitting the all but unlimited flow of firearms, the following Presidents have been shot and killed in office: Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy. Besides that, Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, not to mention Ronald Reagan, all survived assassination attempts with handguns. For those who defend handguns as synonymous with the safety of the general public, how many other countries in the Western World have suffered similar losses of their leaders since 1865?
Whether you agree with me or not, there are a lot of intriguing reasons to see Lincoln, so get there as soon as possible. And oh, by the way, lock up this year’s Oscar winner in the best actor category, as no one comes close to dancing in Mr. Daniel Day-Lewis’ league.