Our Review of Lincoln

[dropcap]D[/dropcap]irector Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is about the last four months of the President’s life in office (August-December 1865), as he, weary from carrying the weight of a nation divided, sought to wind down the war with the South, while simultaneously making preparations for a Reconstruction period that, if not planned carefully, would see slavery take root again in the South. The film, based on Doris Kearn’s Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” depicts Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) as rather elderly, internally-conflicted, quirky, and soft-spoken in his day-to-day routines behind closed doors – ever the humble public servant – and yet, stubborn, proudly oratorical, and oft-moral relativistic when convinced the ends would justify the means, even if it meant partnering with some shady characters.

Lewis himself acknowledges the “two faces” of Lincoln in a recent NYT profile:

He has a very powerful orbit, which is interesting because we tend to hold him at such a distance. He’s been mythologized almost to the point of dehumanization. But when you begin to approach him, he almost instantly becomes welcoming and accessible, the way he was in life.”

Or as screenwriter Tony Kushner says (h/t WaPo):

“I think the reason we had such an easy time talking about Lincoln and sharing a vision of Lincoln is that we both agree so deeply [that he] was an in­cred­ibly dextrous walker of tightropes.”

The timeliness of the movie’s release, only three days after the presidential election, invites, perhaps, comparisons to our current officeholder. He too, a lawyer, an Illinoisan and an outsider in Washington, a towering rhetorical figure with the world’s expectations on his shoulders, he too a “tightrope walker”, the people’s candidate, seeking to accomplish the great legislative victories he promised within a transcendent moral framework, all the while facing an unbending and highly polarized Congress.  Indeed, Obama has cited Lincoln as a principal influence in his life, so much that he announced his candidacy for president at the same Springfield Courthouse Lincoln announced his way back in 1858; Obama also used Lincoln’s Bible to take the Oath of Office. 

While conspiracy theorists should probably leave this one alone (Spielberg and team released this film AFTER the election), there is something immensely gratifying, on an intellectual level, to gain from this film. For me, it’s that governing is incredibly difficult, if you want to do it with conviction and with your heart set on the right…with the attitude that scoring cheap political points is irresponsible, and moreover, what is responsible, is to face that sea of troubles to accomplish what you know in your heart will be affirmed by history. The very soul of this movie is Lincoln’s impassioned defense of his position to push as hard as possible to get the House of Representatives, a body deeply divided along party lines, to pass the 13th Amendment. While avoiding freeing the slaves may have garnered peace a few months sooner, Lincoln knew this moment was his, and the nation’s, opportunity, to do something right for the good of humanity.

Real picture of Lincoln in 1864 (left); Lewis (right)
H/T Slate.com

Lewis’ performance itself is a masterpiece: the time he spent to read primary and secondary sources on the man he played has paid off in a big way. In the same NYT interview cited above, Lewis reveals how close he got to Lincoln, at times almost losing himself in his role.

“Without sounding unhinged, I know I’m not Abraham Lincoln. I’m aware of that. But the truth is the entire game is about creating an illusion, and for whatever reason, and mad as it may sound, some part of me can allow myself to believe for a period for time without questioning, and that’s the trick.”

Where the movie lacks is in Lincoln’s personal moments with his family: his insecure wife (Sally Field) and his stubborn older son (Joseph Gordon Levitt). Their presences just seem distracting, and in fact have no bearing on the plot. This piece is only a proxy indicator of a larger deficiency in the overall film, which is that Spielberg and team probably bit off more than they could chew, trying-but-not-succceeding to balance fast-paced Sorkinian White House banter with quiet moments around the fire for brooding, careening over to carriage rides through the orange dirt-laden streets of Washington and to battle scenes, to heated rhetorical battles in the House of Representatives, to depressingly-heart hurting scenes between the President and his mentally-imbalanced wife. It’s almost as if the movie would have been better as a mini-series, the amount of pieces it contained. Still, Lewis’ performance will rank up there as the best of his career, undoubtedly, and if the worst we can say at the end of the movie is that we wanted more, well, that’s not much, is it? <a
href=”http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/lincoln_2011/”>Rotten Tomatoes: 93%

Lincoln Trailer: