Tuesday 8 January 2013

Movie Review: Lincoln (2012)

Steven Spielberg gently wraps his arms around one of the most critical moments in the history of the United States: in the four month period between Abraham's Lincoln re-election and his assassination, slavery was abolished and the Civil War ended, clearing the decks for a unified country to find its footing, and a future superpower to emerge. Lincoln is the story of a dignified President leading his country out of the abyss and onto the road towards glory.

It's January 1865, Lincoln has been re-elected, and a meat-grinder of a Civil War is still rumbling, although it now appears that the Union has the upper hand and the rebels of the Confederate south are exhausted. To the surprise of his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) decides that now is the moment to push the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, through Congress.  Lincoln's reasoning is challenging yet simple: when the war ends, congressmen will lose the courage to support the Amendment.

Members of his own Republican party, including long-time slavery opponent Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), line up behind Lincoln, but not before some congressmen, prodded by the influential Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) demand that the President make overtures to a Confederate delegation wishing to negotiate an end to the war.

The tantalizing prospect that there may be a deal in the making for the fighting to end places the passage of the Amendment in jeopardy, particularly as Lincoln needs 20 Democrats to defect from their party ranks and support the vote. Seward deploys operative William Bilbo (James Spader) and his crew to do what is necessary to secure the Democrat votes. As the clock ticks down towards a history-defining showdown in Congress, Lincoln has to also deal with his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wanting to joint the army, much to the horror of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), still traumatized by the earlier loss of another son.

Lincoln is a commanding talk fest, the movie a series of mostly tense encounters between men arguing over the future of a nation. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (adapting portions of the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin) keep the drama moving by mixing national with domestic politics, Mrs. Lincoln humanizing Lincoln by forcing him to deal with family issues while the country teeters on the edge of destiny. Sally Field's performance is rather obvious, as the first lady often gets in the way of the business of nation building.

The political discourse is necessarily complicated: securing the passage of an Amendment through a Congress filled with men pursuing diverse agendas was never going to be easy, and Kushner's script does not shy away from the more convoluted machinations that churn away beneath the factory of politics. Spielberg keeps the narrative on the safe side of comprehensible, and there is always the sage presence of Lincoln to smooth over the rough patches and patiently remind his foes and friends alike that the country will only ever move forward when he scourge of slavery is forever consigned to history.

Daniel Day-Lewis embodies Lincoln in a performance for the ages. The bent posture, the patient demeanour, the paternalistic smile, the slow, deliberate movements, and the always thoughtful eyes mapping out an ingenious approach to every encounter: Day-Lewis becomes Lincoln, easily switching from father to commander, from listener to story-teller, and from educator to mentor. He polishes the role to a shine that sets the new standard against which all future portrayals of the man will be evaluated, and none are ever likely to measure up. David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones and Hal Holbrook provide strong support in a cast of characters dominated by men of power and purpose.

At 150 minutes, the film carries plenty of weight. And with every phrase from the man's mouth delivered with grace and distinction, he threatens to transform into a faultless divine entity rather than a man. But Spielberg finds the ways to demonstrate that even Lincoln was less than perfect, an unintended confrontation with his son Robert spiralling in an unfortunate direction.

Ultimately Lincoln is leadership at its purest: forming the vision of what is needed; finding the fortitude to proceed despite severe opposition and the methods to succeed when none were obvious; and most crucially, determining the right moment to act. Lincoln is about a man seizing the moment, forging history, and launching the future.

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