Sometimes you see a film that was otherwise done very well and think, “Well, that could have been thirty minutes shorter and it would have been perfect.” This is not the case for Steven Spielberg’s two and a half hour epic, “Lincoln,” starring one of the greatest actors of our time, Daniel Day-Lewis. Every once in a while there is an actor who is so phenomenal that others can scarcely hold the screen with him or her. The depth of Day-Lewis’ brilliance was on display in almost every scene shared with other talented players, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Academy Award winner Sally Fields. This is not an insult to either actor, who both give honorable performances, but rather a massive tribute to Day-Lewis’ craft. Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln’s frustrated eldest son, while Fields plays his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, whose own grief and mental illness colored her complicated character—simultaneously pitiful and alienating.
Spielberg knew it was ambitious to try to capture such a complicated man and legacy in less than three hours, but by narrowing the focus of the narrative and recruiting the brilliance of Day-Lewis, he triumphed. The film centers around the president’s passing of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. I was worried that by ignoring Lincoln’s other accomplishments and scandals the film would fail to fully capture one of the country’s most storied leaders, but instead it reveals Lincoln’s internal struggles and fabled sense of humor through intimate exchanges and moments of quiet isolation, sprinkled with anecdotes and poetic dialog, and an opening dream that shakes him to his core. It is a portrait of a deeply introspective man with the truest of hearts whose corruption and fast-and-loose tactics are well documented—a dichotomy perhaps best summed up by a member of his cabinet when he states that they just witnessed “the ultimate corruption by the purest man in America.”
Beyond the jaw-dropping performances by Day-Lewis, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones (who plays Lincoln’s sometimes-foe, Thaddeus Stevens, and steals the show in the most touching and emotional scene of the film), the most compelling element of the film is the social climate one knows from textbooks brought to life. It’s one thing to hear about past injustices as we shake our heads, believing such things would never stand today. It’s quite another to see them play out before one’s eyes in a way that drives home the similarities of injustices still being fought today. Men shout in fear over what’s to come next if we allow black people freedom; black people voting? Interracial marriage? Women voting? Perhaps it will surprise some that it was the Democratic Party who was most chilled by these prospects and who were the least willing to budge on the amendment. I was reminded of a recent Jon Stewart segment where he interviewed a historian about Eisenhower’s “moderate Republican” policies, and he pressed for the younger audience members who might not know, “what are those?” It was strange and intriguing to see a picture of what the extreme parties we know today used to look like.
But the film forces a question we’ve all been asked before: On which side of history do I want to stand? No doubt, Lincoln’s methods to do the right thing were questionable at best, corrupt and illegal at worst. But I’d wager there wasn’t one person in the theatre who wasn’t filled with an immense sense of pride watching them unfold. These complexities are what drive the film and what will likely start a dialogue about our current politics and the measures that are necessary for change. Without delving too far into personal politics, the parallels between the 16th president and our current one appeared throughout—perhaps most clearly when a councilman remarks that Lincoln has aged “ten years in just one.” Anyone who has seen the side-by-side comparison of President Obama in 2008 and 2012 is sure to recognize that effect which Lincoln remarks is the cost of fighting for the right thing and causes “a weariness to bite at [his] bones.” But not all of the similarities were somber. It was comforting to know that the House of Representatives was corrupt as early as 1865, which was hilariously noted when a member of Lincoln’s cabinet remarks that bribing Democratic votes for the amendment is nothing new as, without bribery, congressmen would starve.
Jokes aside, “Lincoln” is sure to keep even the most familiar historians engaged and on the edge of their seat—unless you’re the narcoleptic gentleman accompanying a friend of his who won tickets to the screening sitting to my right (Okay, one more joke). The cinematography of Janusz Kamiński is brilliant, most evidently during the climactic vote as the camera pans from Lincoln’s silhouette (standing stoically behind the curtain in the window of his White House office) and the increasingly agitated members of congress saying their vote aloud. Lincoln will assuredly have a robust presence at the Oscars, with a beautiful score by John Williams and an artfully adapted screenplay by Tony Kushner. Whether you’re familiar with the president’s legacy or not, the film is an entertaining and fascinating look into the country’s formative years and the policies that shaped our current identity. Without spoiling any of the most unpredictable moments, I’ll leave you with a quote that remains bitter-sweetly relevant today: “When we let go of the freedom of oppression, we might just discover freedoms we never knew existed.”
Release date: November 16th 2012
Show stealers: Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones