Sunday, December 2, 2012

Movie Review - Lincoln

"A compass will point you true north but it won't show you the swamps between you and there. If you don't avoid the swamps, what's the use of knowing true north?"

That statement made by President Abraham Lincoln to Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, an ardent pro-abolitionist and antagonist to the President is one of the most profound moments in the film, "Lincoln", directed by Steve Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner who adapted part of Doris Kearns Goodwin's magnificent book, "Team of Rivals".  The statement exemplifies the paths that men of principle must often take in order to accomplish something significant.

The movie is lush and long, with a running time of about two and a half hours. Spielberg did, as he described in his own words "didn't want to make a film about a monument", craft a movie that is at once visually arresting and an interesting story.  It's probably not a surprise that at the end of the day, the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery is passed, and yes, the Union defeats the Confederate Army and ends the Civil War at the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9th, 1865.  But, the movie does a wonderful job of building up the tension to a point you are anxious about the outcome.  Spielberg and Kushner have put together a film that will most likely be an Oscar Contender, and it well should be.  This is the great story of our country's most difficult time and a period of the most radical change it had experienced in its short life.

The movie is about the internal workings of getting legislation passed.  That sounds enormously boring, and is often referred to by those who perform the craft as "sausage making" because of the metaphorically ugly way the final product is manufactured. However, given the subject matter, and the stakes to both Lincoln personally and the country at large, we are engaged almost immediately from the start.  The cabinet meetings, where Lincoln has internal opponents to what he is attempting to do are examples of the serious debate and in-fighting that can result when complex issues are being worked on.  There are no easy answers.  Secretary of State Williams Seward, brilliantly played by David Straitharn tells Lincoln in one scene "You can have the 13th amendment or you can have peace with the Confederacy, but you cannot have both".  The country is a war, it is 1865, four years after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Hundreds of thousand of people have been killed.  This is no discussion on the debate ceiling or the "fiscal cliff". This is serious, life deciding stuff, and Lincoln has to navigate half the country who are at war with him as well as half of the Congress who do not want to see the 13th Amendment passed. Lincoln knows, or at least suspects that the Emancipation Proclamation he issued in 1863 may not stand up to a legal challenge, so he needs the revocation of slavery to be passed into law.  His team launches into a multi-pronged effort to whip congress towards his objective and to hold off those who want to wait for and end of the war to take up the measure.  Lincoln, for all his folksiness and homespun wisdom, was a master politician, and knew that he had to get the Amendment passed before the war ended or he may not achieve the objective of once and for all ending slavery.

Daniel-Day Lewis is astoundingly convincing as the 16th President.  His appearance, obviously enhanced by makeup is almost perfect. He walks with the flat-footed slow gait attributed to Lincoln by historians. His voice is high and reedy, again as described by historical record, and you come away with a picture of Lincoln who is witty and charming, serious and passionate, emotional and melancholy and most of all an appreciation of this man's enormous strength of character and devotion to his cause.  Lewis inhabits Lincoln in a manner that should serve as a model for anyone in the future attempting to portray a historical figure, and I expect an Oscar nomination for his performance.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, a veteran congressman from Pennsylvania and a leader of the Radical Republicans, whose views towards abolition and what to do to the South after the Civil War were harsh and unbending.  Jones' portrayal of Stevens legendary wit and vicious insulting is displayed here in this clip and he is fantastic in the role. In this clip he is responding to a challenge from Congressman Woods from New York when asked if he thinks all men (including Negroes) are "equal".  Watch Stevens eviscerate the foolish challenger who can only respond with "How Dare You".

Spielberg has enlisted a stellar cast to support Lewis and Jones in this movie.  Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln, of whom a whole movie just about her spending on the house accounts in and of itself could be made.  Hal Holbrook plays Preston Blair, a Republican leader whom Lincoln tasks with talking with the peace commission from the Confederacy. Jared Harris plays U.S. Grant.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Robert, Lincoln's oldest son.  James Spader has a hysterically funny role as lawyer W.N. Bilbo, who is engaged to "persuade" congressman to vote for the amendment through offers of patronage.  There is a scene where one congressman, who has had enough of Bilbo's entreaties pulls out a gun and trys to shoot him.  It is one of the funniest moments in the film as is the other scene Spader has when Lincoln comes to visit him and his colleagues and walks in unannounced into their tent.  Spader's response is terrific.

The movie ends with Lincoln's assassination and Spielberg deals with this in a touching and well depicted manner. 

"Lincoln" is a lesson in how to get something done. I wish a copy would be sent to every member of Congress today.  The subject matter Lincoln and his contemporaries had to deal with make the current dust-ups in Washington look trivial.  Perhaps watching this can inspire them to get off their keisters and accomplish something.

If you have not scene Lincoln, I strongly encourage you to do so. It is one of the best films I've seen in a long, long time.  It is also Spielberg's best movie since Saving Private Ryan in my opinion.


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