Lincoln - ***1/2
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Straitharn, James Spader, John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Review: Abraham Lincoln. Just saying the name conjures up thoughts and images in the average person’s mind. He was a man like any other, but one whose legend has grown in the century and a half since his death. Some say you don’t truly die until the last person that remembers you is gone. If that’s the case, Lincoln will truly be an immortal figure.
To say nothing of how he lead this nation through its greatest crisis, stories began to grow making him a Paul Bunyan-like figure of American lore. Often times when thinking about Lincoln this is what we think of. He is so ingrained in our culture of a man of legend that it seems to be accepted how much he changed the course of our nation without much regard for what it truly took to do so.
As a film, Lincoln is a character study of this man as much as it is a retelling of the events leading to one of the most impactful amendments to our beloved constitution. This does not focus on the legend but the man. Who Lincoln was and what allowed him to be the leader that turned him into the legend most see when they hear his name today.
It’s obvious great care was taken with this film. Janusz Kaminiski, longtime collaborator of Spielberg’s, provides another fantastic example of his genius. We see the world of the 1860’s through smoke of cigarettes and cigars, lit by fires and crude lamps, and through frost covered windows that allow bits of breeze through even when closed.
It all sets the stage perfectly for what transpires on film. And setting the “stage” is apropos as the movie feels like a play. Few sets are necessary as most of the film takes place in the House of Representatives and random rooms in the White House where political dealings are plentiful.
Lincoln himself permeates every scene, even those in which he is not physically present. He was the type of man who took on the burdens of those around him and did so by choice. His imposing physical stature made less so by a slight hunch and an awkward gait. Both of which seemed to get worse as time passed. Only about a year went by in the film but Lincoln was made to look years older by the end of it. You really get the sense that Lincoln truly did have an entire nation on his back which he gladly carried forward into a better future.
This was all part of what has made Day-Lewis’ performance possibly the best of the year. Beyond that, it no doubt solidifies him as the greatest actor of the current generation. To be able to embody a legend, a man that nobody living has seen in real life or heard, and make it seem truly authentic is an accomplishment of true greatness.
Not to be outdone the supporting performances only add to the richness. Tommy Lee Jones gives a remarkable performance as Thaddeus Stevens that should be recognized. James Spader gives an excellent turn as does Sally Field as the possibly mentally unstable Mary Todd Lincoln.
As American’s we know the outcome of Lincoln’s tale. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and actors that they were still able to create tension even though their fate is decided. And Spielberg being the excellent director he is knows that the ultimate ending is one of tragedy. We see Lincoln at other plays before his assassination, knowing that love of the theater will be the place of death. There is a sense of fait accompli about Lincoln, but also one of destiny.
And as with all things historical in nature the important story that is revealed isn’t the end result, but how they got there.
What is revealed is that Lincoln was a man and a politician before he was a legend. We see that he wasn’t comfortable with all of the things he did and even questioned his own actions from time to time. What he was comfortable with was his beliefs. Those were the beliefs that led to change.
The nation wasn’t perfect when he took over as its leader, nor was it perfect when he left. In the last century and a half we’ve learned that even if America is the greatest nation of all, it will never be perfect. No president will make this so. What Lincoln shows us is that even if all the problems can’t be fixed our country can always change and become a better version of itself. The power of beliefs and democracy and even politics (however shady) show that the nation can come together to do what's right.
One of the things that struck me was how similar the landscape of 19th century politics seemed to how it is currently. Such similarities seemed to really strike a cord when you realize that just as happened then, change can happen now. Of all of the things that make this country great, one of them is that its never beyond repair. The power to change exists, all that’s needed is the belief to push that change into action.