Abraham Lincoln: The Sixteenth President of the United States, Honest Abe, The Great Emancipator. The man is huge. Lincoln is so fundamental to our national identity, not just because of his mark on American history, but also because of who he was and what he represented (and still represents) to the American people. He not only guided us through arguably the most critical moment in our history, but he also represents the mobility of American society. Here was a some hick lawyer from Illinois, and he through hard work he gets to be one of the most beloved presidents in American history. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. Bringing this historic figure to the screen in an honest way had to be a real struggle, but Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis pull it off brilliantly in Lincoln.
Lincoln focuses on the passage of the thirteenth amendment, the first of the “reconstruction” amendments, which abolishes slavery. Even in the North, people aren’t too comfortable with freeing slaves; racism is just as present in the North as the South. It truly is a struggle for Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) to pass the amendment, but it’s one that will only get more and more difficult. If the war ends and the southern states rejoin the Union and thus Congress, they are sure to vote against the amendment. With the southern states and several northern states voting against it, “it shall not pass.” One of Lincoln’s main arguments for the amendment is that it will help end the war, but really the war could end before the amendment is passed. He needs to actually keep the war going until the amendment is passed, but at the same time can’t really keep the war going because people are dying. So he has to pass the amendment quickly before the war ends, but also has to end the war quickly so less lives will be lost. It’s an impossible problem.
Democracy is slow. It moves soooo slowly, but Lincoln has to get things done fast. He can’t stay strictly inside the law, but since when has politics done that? Lincoln, along with the help of his secretary of state Seward (David Strathairn) scheme and plot to get the necessary votes. I don’t think this is technically illegal, but it’s not really legal either. It’s a gray area (I’m pretty sure politics is made out of gray areas). When I was watching this it didn’t feel wrong at all. This may have been because they wanted to bring down slavery, something that I wholeheartedly agree with. Another part of it was that the three guys they hire as lobbyists I guess I’ll call them, were just really funny. Some of the funniest parts in the film were when these guys were going around trying to buy off democrats. It doesn’t sound very funny, but trust me, it is. There’s this one scene where one the lobbyists is recounting when one of the democrats he was sent to buy off tried to shoot him, and in flashback we see them fighting. The lobbyist runs away, but has to come back to pick up his incriminating documents. I laughed out loud in the theater, and I was not the only one.
While the war wages on and the struggle to pass the amendment continues, Lincoln’s got some personal problems of his own. His youngest son has nightmares, but that’s only the beginning. He is on best terms with his youngest son, it really is cute to watch them together. His wife (Sally Field) can be a bit… touchy at points. I didn’t like her very much, but in all fairness she’s going through a lot. Her son died and she can’t get over it. Lincoln was forced to move on because the country needed him, but Mary doesn’t have anything like that to keep her going. When Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), their eldest son, decides he can no longer live with himself if he doesn’t enlist, Mary blames Lincoln for not stopping him. Not that Lincoln didn’t try, but he realizes better than Mary what Robert needs to do, and possibly will be able to bear it better than she will if he does die.
The real triumph of this film is undeniably the acting. Spielberg doesn’t try anything fancy on us; the style is simple, and visually it just looks like the 1800s. I believe this is the right choice for a story about Lincoln, just to present the story and leave it at that.
Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln was unquestionably perfect. He looked just like Lincoln, and sounded and acted just like I’d expect him too (but it’s not as if I had thought about it before-hand). He could just be sitting there thinking, and I was riveted. I can’t even really talk about his performance because it was like he wasn’t even acting. He was Lincoln, so instead of Day-Lewis I have to talk about him. The details they put into the character were great, like how he never wanted to wear his gloves, and how he did a lot of things for himself that you wouldn’t expect of a president. He shined his own boots and stoked the fire himself. Those are the type of things that make people love Lincoln so much; we feel like he’s just a regular guy. Of course he isn’t, his great political maneuverings and awesome oration let us know that he is anything but ordinary. This is also part of the charm though, he is at once on our level and above it.
Another great performance was Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens. Not as well known or beloved as Lincoln, but still a great character. Tommy Lee was still unquestionably Tommy Lee in this role, but I love the guy so it was great. Stevens was the leader of the radical republicans, which sounds kind of scary, but this was radical according to the time. They were really just advocating for equal rights for all citizens, something that doesn’t seem so radical today. Stevens had some really great sarcastic lines to throw at the opposing democrats, and it was great. Steven’s shining moment came when, during the final debate before the vote to pass to amendment, he was asked if the amendment was intended to eventually lead to full equal rights for African Americans (the vote, intermarriage, etc..). He hopes it will lead to this someday. However, the republicans need democrat votes to pass this thing, so he has to come off more moderate in his goals for the amendment. In short, he has to lie. The moment when he does is both triumphant and defeating. Though he probably saved the amendment, he put back equal rights for African Americans. He declares that he believes that not all men are equal, but they should be equal before the law (reminiscent of Atticus Finch’s closing argument in To Kill A Mockingbird). While originally insulting to African Americans, he manages to semi turn it around and insult a particularly annoying democrat, and it really is a great moment. Later, he is disgusted with himself that he “will say anything” to get the job done. But at the end of the day, he is glad to have it done. Once he gets home it’s easy to see why.
Lincoln is a great film, both in its fair portrayal of Abraham Lincoln and its fair portrayal of American politics. It’s especially rare to see things actually getting done and it’s never easy to get there; this film shows that brilliantly. I will go on record now saying that I will be astounded if Day-Lewis does not get an Oscar nomination. It’s pretty much a certainty, and I think that anybody who sees this film will have to agree.
“‘Two things that are both equal to another thing, are equal to each other’… He says this is ‘self-evident.’ They knew, even then.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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