There was a time when politics were exciting and meaningful, rather than combative and depressing. We made up our own country, for shit’s sake! Granted, we did it on land that wasn’t ours…
Regardless, we rebelled against our oppressive motherland and started over from scratch. Since we didn’t want to fuck it up, we agreed on a list of rules. We created a system designed to give everyone a voice and an infrastructure of checks and balances to keep ourselves from regressing. We fought and died for the rights of those who wanted to be part of our union. But somehow, we lost touch with our goal. We became exclusive and we were pretty terrible to the people we didn’t want in our club. In a way, when the 13th amendment passed, it was a renewal of vows for the Constitution. It was a footnote that said, “You know all those rights and self-evident truths we were just talking about? They should apply to everyone.”
Steven Spielberg’s latest epic, “Lincoln,” is a beautiful portrait of one of this country’s greatest leaders during the most important part of his life. The film’s tone is optimistic whilst still acknowledging the faults of men. Somehow, it manages to add suspense to a tale we already know by heart. Best of all, it’s celebratory of our nation without being jingoistic. I wish we could have elected this movie as the next President of the United States of America.
Some would argue that not much has changed, hence the phrase, “Politics as usual.” But it’s not every day Congress ratifies an amendment, particularly one that ends a war that has split the country in two. Despite the all-encompassing title, “Lincoln” only covers the last four months of the 16th president’s career and life, which revolved around the resolution of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment. But we don’t need to see the rest of his life to understand Abraham Lincoln’s true quality. Daniel Day Lewis fully embodies the prominent image. His Lincoln is soft-spoken, gentle and cunning.
He needs to pass his proposed amendment through Congress before the war ends because it will be much harder to do once the Confederacy is allowed to resume federal representation. Meanwhile, he receives pressure from all sides to end the war by any means necessary and “stop the bleeding,” even if it means putting off the vote. Since it is the very morality of the 13th amendment that is under contention, Lincoln uses his lawyer cunning to come up with “practical” reasons to abolish slavery. (I found this aspect of the film particularly amusing because I took history class in Virginia, where they did their best to sweep all that nasty racism under the rug. I can’t tell you how many times I had to answer the question, “Name two motivations for the Civil War other than slavery,” on a test.)
The film opens with a brutal combat scene in which men die under great anguish, but that is the only time we visit an active battleground. I prefer Spielberg when he deals with war from a distance. There have been enough films to show us what being in the shit is like. Here, we spend most of our time with the men who put them there, peppering the story with just enough carnage to remind us that people died over this heated debate between old white men.
I would be shocked if “Lincoln” didn’t dominate this year’s Academy Award nominations. Normally, I would hate a movie that the Academy will so clearly embrace. This film had every opportunity to be a giant schmaltz fest, and it took the high road at nearly every turn. Only a handful of times did I feel that I was being played for emotional response (watch yourself, John Williams). The rest of the time, my emotional responses were 100% genuine.
It didn’t hurt that many of the grand speeches given were the real words uttered by those most eloquent history-makers. The tight script by Tony Kushner (“Angels in America,” “Munich”), is based in part on the biography, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. As you might expect, they play all the hits. Sometimes famous speeches can sound hackneyed, but if you get the right person reciting, it will be as fresh and stirring as the day it was first uttered. Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the grizzled “radical Republican” with the biggest emotional investment in the amendment, seems poised to receive a standing ovation after nearly every scene. If “Lincoln” had been performed on stage, he probably would have.
That is not the only way in which “Lincoln” evokes the Bard. I’m sure the costumes are authentic, but those wigs, ruffled ascots, and extravagant facial hair seem, at times, a little over-the-top. There is also comedic buffoonery, as performed by three lobbyists (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader) Lincoln employs to secure votes from the opposing party; There is an overbearing wife (Sally Field), driven mad with grief; And, of course, there is a tragic hero. The events depicted are so significant, the characters so iconic, that it is impossible to get lost in the story without constantly being reminded that you are watching history.
Nonetheless, the film’s only real weak moments are when it deals with Lincoln’s private life. Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), wants to enlist in the Union army despite his parents’ wishes. Abe and Mary fight over the correct way to be sad about the death of their middle child. Field delivers her lines with histrionic, movie-of-the-week fervor. These subplots feel superfluous, and perhaps they should. After all, it’s his political work that made Abraham Lincoln such a symbol of true American values.
Though you can, at times, see the seams around his eyes, Day-Lewis’ face is so accurately transformed that it may as well be a C.G. overlay of the actual president’s head. Day-Lewis plays Lincoln as a complex man who keeps his demons at bay for the good of the country. He is a raconteur who chooses his words carefully as if he knows that everything he utters will be recorded for posterity. And that’s in keeping with the spirit of the nation, because every decision that our government makes affects each of its citizens individually. He’s a hero who is just doing what he knows is the right thing to do. He’s an idol, but he’s also accessible because we all have the potential to be that heroic. In the words of the film, it’s a “democracy to aspire to.”
Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).