Monday, November 19, 2012


I'll be the first to admit that Abraham Lincoln is the "right answer" when the question of "Who was the greatest President?" makes its way into a given conversation; akin to the Sunday school answer of "Jesus!" to every question posed. Even amongst the iconic names like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, it seems like quite a challenge to find a man who weathered a more difficult time in the history of our nation with such grace and dignity. He's become a legend, and rightly so.

Many a miniseries, radio drama, and film has attempted to depict Lincoln dramatically. And earlier this year saw his tongue-in-cheek incarnation in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer. But it should come as no surprise that the latest depiction of Honest Abe may be the greatest, as Steven Spielberg's Lincoln released last week to critical acclaim. The film focuses on the final months of the Civil War - and by extension, Lincoln's life - and the political intrigue surrounding the passing of the 13th Amendment. With an ensemble cast and a host of Oscar-winning Spielberg regulars (John Williams, Janusz Kaminski, Michael Kahn, etc.), Lincoln has all the ear-marks of an early Oscar contender.


Even if you haven't seen the movie, you've likely heard the praise or expected great things from the trailer. If you take one thing away from this review, it's that all the hype is well deserved.

Lincoln is not a war movie really by any stretch. At the film's opening there is a scene depicting the brutal chaos of battle that lasts for just under a minute, and there is another brief scene at a hospital that depicts a wheelbarrow of amputated limbs being carted away. But aside from those two moments, the film is devoid of blood or gore and all of the conflict depicted is either interpersonal or political.

As a character-driven film, much of my praise is directed at the character-driven aspects; namely the acting. It should come as no surprise that Daniel Day-Lewis has once again crafted a performance for which he will almost assuredly win Best Actor. I was immediately thrilled when the first trailers for the film came out and I heard Day-Lewis's take on Lincoln's voice. While Lincoln's legend has endowed his memory with a commanding and booming voice, eyewitness (earwitness?) accounts from the era indicate his voice was rather high-pitched and somewhat nasal. So I was excited to see that even such a seemingly insignificant detail was already being incorporated into the authenticity of the film before it was even released. But the voice is only one piece to the puzzle that makes up Day-Lewis' magnificent performance. The way he gestures with his hands, his rather awkward gait, his odd but endearing sense of humor; all of these are rendered so wonderfully that Mr. Day-Lewis once again completely disappears into his role. He is Abraham Lincoln, and the film is naturally all the stronger for it.

But right alongside Day-Lewis' powerhouse performance is a treasure trove of equally engrossing performances. Sally Field balances tender heartache with subtle histrionics as the unstable Mary Todd Lincoln. David Strathairn's turn as Secretary of State William Seward is appropriately tense, while Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens is cunning but convicting. With a cast as recognizable as they are talented, I'm tempted to go name-by-name in praise of each performance. But suffice it to say that everyone - from Lee Pace to Jared Harris to Jackie Earle Hayley to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and everyone in between - perform marvelously under Spielberg's expert directorial care.

Which brings me to the next point of interest: the directing. It's often hard to take note of a director's "performance" in the absence of personal touches or flairs for flash. But Spielberg does an outstanding job putting this film together. The pacing is methodical but even and engaging. Each shot is framed with textbook precision, and the color palette employed gives Lincoln a mildly weathered look. There's no evidence of a mass bleach-bypass or anything, but each frame of the movie feels as though it has been gently aged for effect.

And John Williams is at it again. His score for Lincoln isn't quite as iconic or grandiose as the work that's made him a living legend. But between piano melodies that evoke Gospel hymns of the time period and tragically triumphant brass in the main theme, the score stays with you long after the credits have rolled.


The movie is two and a half hours long, and while I personally didn't find that to be a deterrent I'm sure there are those who would be less than pleased with such a run-time regarding material that's comparatively bland next to an action heavy movie like Gettysburg or Glory.


Lincoln is, as I hinted at before, likely to be up for several nominations at the next Academy Awards ceremony. And I wouldn't be surprised to see it take away the Best Picture Oscar either, though there's still plenty of time between now and then for other films to join the running.

From what I can gather, the film takes little historical license with its topic and more or less conveys things as they happened authentically. But the most important detail that appears to be rendered with complete historical accuracy - so far as we can tell - is the person of Lincoln himself. Some of the best moments in the movie are those in which Lincoln showcases what secured him the Presidency in the first place: his personable nature and undeniable sincerity. The movie is downright funny in several places as Lincoln shares a humorous tale or tells a joke with the purpose of drawing a parallel or illustrating a point. And it's in those moments, though I'm aware that I'm only watching a performance, that I feel as though I'm getting to know Abraham Lincoln a little better. It's this feeling that ultimately makes Lincoln a triumph. It's an intimately personal film that doesn't really go out of its way to praise the memory of our 16th President, because the case for his acclaim is readily self-evident in his words and actions.

While it only focuses on a very brief moment in Lincoln's life, I'm of the opinion that this movie may be the quintessential portrait of the man. There's a palpable depth to the entire film no matter which part you inspect, and this depth reflects the gravity of the historical events depicted.

Lincoln is a superlative achievement, and one that dutifully honors the man it depicts. In short, Steven Spielberg has done it again, ladies and gentlemen.

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