We review Lincoln – A compelling and surprisingly witty history lesson

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Four score and seven years ago, give or take about seventy five years, acclaimed director and proud beard cultivator Steven Spielberg began the daunting task of bringing to life on screen the 16th President of the United States of America, and owner of possibly America’s most famous beard, Abraham Lincoln.

Spielberg immediately reached out to one man to portray the iconic president. That man said “No”. Then he said “No” a few more times. But eventually though, he said “yes”. That man was Daniel Day-Lewis and it’s a good thing he changed his mind, otherwise we might have been deprived of one of the best films of the year.

It’s extremely difficult for me to not just spend the remaining 900 or so words of this review, doing nothing but heaping praise upon Daniel Day-Lewis. Lincoln, the tale of the last four months of the president’s life as he tries to simultaneously end the American Civil War and usher in the paradigm shifting 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution to abolish slavery, can essentially be considered as Exhibit M or thereabouts in Day-Lewis’ three decade long case to prove that he is the world’s greatest living actor. And with this, the most compelling evidence to date, I doubt there will be much naysayers left.

Yes, the outstanding, bordering on witchcraft, make-up job has already transformed him into an eerily accurate doppelganger, but make-up can only do so much. With a wearied, lilting gait, shepherd’s crook spine and surprisingly warbling voice that speaks from his heart to yours, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln looks and sounds every bit the man who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. It’s an astonishing physical transformation that elevates this performance above just being a character from history depicted really well on screen, but rather to a manifestation of a fully formed human being.

This humanizing effect is helped along immensely by Tony Kushner’s script (adapted in part from Dorris Kearn Goodwin’s Book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”) which shows Lincoln in the most trying period of his life, as he sometimes stumbles in his convictions as well as his relationships to the key people around him, and in the stewardship of his nation’s sons dying on the battlefield, all in the name of achieving this most honourable goal of taking the first step to equality in his country. It also shows the toll that it placed on his marriage to Mary Todd (played with such raw emotion by Sally Field), a wife previously driven to the brink of madness by the grief of a lost child, who now just desperately wants her husband to sometimes put his family before his duty. 

Now you may recall that 2012 saw the release of another Lincoln-centric film, but instead of fighting elderly politicians, there he went toe to toe with the bloodsucking undead (some would say that those are both the same thing). Yet, for all the seriousness of the subject matter of Lincoln compared to the absurd concept of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, there’s a surprising amount more levity to be found here. This is not only through Lincoln’s affinity for telling stories, some of them pretty bawdy (the president is even responsible for some very literal toilet humour), but from the rest of the cast too. The group of persuaders led by Mr Bilbo (No, not that Mr Bilbo!), played by a slick talking James Spader, will have you in stitches as they try to grease the political wheels a bit to ensure that Lincoln gets enough votes to pass his amendment.

And while Thaddeus Stevens -leader of the Radical faction of Lincoln’s Republican Party, brought to life with great aplomb, bad wig and all, by the always great Tommy Lee Jones – has one of the most thought provoking moments of the film, as he sacrifices his own beliefs for the greater good, the moments you’ll probably remember best are those in the House of Representatives where Steven’s hilarious and rather creative talent for verbal barbs is used to full effect on the political opposition. But rowdy name calling isn’t all that Jones brings to the table, as he offers a hard to dislike performance that is fully deserving of the praise being heaped upon it.

Really though, the entire cast is worthy of praise: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s eldest honour-bound son, Robert; Jackie Earl Haley as Confederation Vice President, Alexander Stevens; David Strathairn as Lincoln’s right hand man, William Seward; Gloria Rueben as Elizabeth Keckley, the First Lady’s black confidant; and quite a few others, too many to name individually, all have their moments.

Now you may have noticed that until now, I’ve barely mentioned director Steven Spielberg, and there’s a good reason for that. Lacking his usual cinematic flair, some might say that Spielberg is just phoning this one in. And they may even be correct. It’s just that Spielberg is so talented behind the camera that his phoned-in effort is still superior to most. He takes what is essentially, barring a vicious opening battle sequence, two and a half hours of people just standing/sitting around talking, and turns it into an at times gripping, at times amusing film.

It’s clear that Spielberg and his longtime cinematographer, Januzs Kaminski, know that the compelling characters (and the actors/actress that portray them) and engaging script  are the stars of this show. Yes, they still lovingly recreate the world of 1865, and show a master’s touch at painting tableaus of light and shadow, but they also avoid any cinematography histrionics and just get on with telling you this tale about a pivotal moment in American history.

Now yes, admittedly, Kushner’s script and Spielberg’s direction do play loose and fast with some facts for the sake of dramatic effect, but only to the extent that just the most vociferous pickers of nits should have a problem. Those who are not bothered by these history book edits though, will find themselves experiencing one of the best history lessons they’ve ever had, anchored by a lead performance that’s truly worthy of one of history’s greatest leaders.

Last Updated: January 25, 2013

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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