Lincoln

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Release: Friday, November 16, 2012

[Theater]

Start getting used to seeing Daniel Day-Lewis’ face on the penny after this performance.

The latest creation from the legendary Steven Spielberg has maintained some pretty high levels of hype for some time now (I think I remember seeing the first photos of Day-Lewis as Lincoln back in early summer, maybe as early as March or April this year). When you think about all the time that has passed, and especially with an eye toward all those films that have suffered from a case of too-much hype (cough-cough Cloud Atlas cough) it’s amazing the promotional campaign for this one didn’t take it down a notch or two for millions of eager moviegoers everywhere. I guess that’s a simple gesture toward just how damn good Mr. Lewis is in this feature.

Here comes another extremely difficult act to follow. Everything — from the falsetto voice that is at times quite shaky and strange to hear coming from a man of his iconic stature, to the way Mr. Lewis shuffles down the White House corridors, to the way he cozies up to his youngest son on the floor while he sleeps peacefully — I mean everything; every scene is a poignant moment. When Abe excitedly fills an entire room with his stories that sometimes don’t even have anything to do with the current discussion, we all listen up. That ‘we’ includes us in the audience and all those fantastic actors on screen, too. Mr. Lewis’ Lincoln is simply mesmerizing. The description I’ve read across the board is ‘captivating.’

Okay, okay! Agree to disagree on all these pretty adjectives.

Much credit, though, has got to be given to the writers. Tony Kushner has adopted parts of a book titled the same by Doris Kearns Goodwin and transformed it into a beautiful, eloquently-delivered and well-balanced script. Lincoln is most of the time respectful of its historical and cultural significance, but it has no compunction to stick to flat, dull, humorless speech. Most of the jokes come from a rambling Abe Lincoln as he attempts to lighten the mood in whatever room he may be in while discussing the emancipation of slaves versus ending the war:

“I could write shorter sermons but when I get started I’m too lazy to stop.”

Along with great lines like that (and far too many others for me to even try to stick in here) it is very difficult to not at once be taken in by the warmth of this man and his bushy beard. His kind eyes and smile glow as he passionately expresses his desire to see his divided States of America unite.

It’s where Spielberg decided to start focusing on Lincoln’s personal and presidential timeline that provides us such a magnificent vantage point: the embattled president fighting over what’s more critical, ending the war or ending slavery. As something of an idealist, Lincoln wanted both to happen. Simultaneously. But good luck accomplishing that with a Congress acting more like a loosely-assembled bunch of party kids than political professionals. Best case scenario as far as the item of slavery was concerned, the President may officially pass a law declaring it illegal, but that would hardly change what was more or less an unanimous national view on human rights (or the lack thereof). In order to show the intensity of this animosity amongst fellow Americans, Lincoln dives headfirst into two-and-a-half hours of dialogue-intensive depictions of how committed our beloved Lincoln was to righting what was so clearly wrong with the country. He spoke thoughtfully, often in prose-like fashion, and deliberately slowly in times that were so trying that hardly any of his own Cabinet members were sharing his viewpoints. “Blood’s been spilt to afford us this moment! Now! Now! Now!”

Bolstered by a supporting cast with members who are hardly supporting actors at all (in fact this movie has three Academy Award winners in Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field) the movie plays out as though it were found footage from the day. It is astonishingly flesh-and-blood, despite the 150 years or so that have gotten in the way. Jones plays the loudmouthed Republican majority leader Thaddeus Stevens, and is characteristically stealing all the scenes again. Field is the perpetually ailing Mary Todd Lincoln, who is desperate for her husband to successfully end the war and have her family no longer torn apart by this war. She does an excellent job adding to Abe’s stresses. And ours. Then there’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eldest Lincoln son, Robert; James Spader as snappy dresser W.N. Bilbo; Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair; and a strong, convincing Jared Harris as General Ulysses S. Grant.

What may win the battle entirely, though, is the moment in which the decision is reached concerning the 13th Amendment. The moment when it is announced in Congress; the moment in which Thaddeus Stevens can no longer contain his disdain for the Democratic proponents of slavery, is A) a groundbreaking moment in American history, and B) one of the biggest chills I have gotten watching a movie ever. All of the appeal of the CGI porns like Transformers and the Matrix Trilogy seem to weigh nothing compared to this dramatization of factual events.

So, when Lincoln pleads, “Shall we stop this bleeding?” you’re likely to do only one thing: nod your head, in wholehearted agreement. You’ll want peace so badly for Mr. Lincoln in this film, and that’s helped by hopefully some prior knowledge you might have of what he achieved as president, and all that may come after him. Still, even if, I guess, you somehow have no idea who Abraham Lincoln was and are hence shielding your eyes from the blinding sun (having just crawled out from underneath a rock) you’ll get to fall in love with at minimum, Day-Lewis’ portrayal. And that’s enough for the soul. There have been few movies that have this potent power to warm people and at the same time, educate, like Lincoln does. And to think, when I first was seeing photos of the new film, I was so obsessed with just how authentic it [the costume and make-up] looked. Gave no thought to how well it would also play out.

But I guarantee you, no matter how well “he is fit into these times” the anticipation leading up to the release will be the last thing on your mind when his final announcements echo off into the crowd, into the audience, into the canon of truly great American heroes.

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4-5Recommendation: I kind of want to leave this section blank…just based on the fact that I can’t truly recommend a deeply patriotic American movie when I myself am not American. But it goes without saying that this is well-done. Through-and-through. It brought tears to the eyes every now and then. Emotions certainly run high. There’s laughter. There’s Lincoln getting infuriated at his own Cabinet. Wounded young soldiers, blood and gore in a war that was waged on the ridiculous notion that blacks should be in bondage. And a Brit plays the great American President. If none of the above will interest you in seeing it, then nothing will.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 149 mins.

Quoted: “How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio? Proof that some men ARE inferior, endowed by their maker with dim wits, impermeable to reason, with cold, pallid slime in their veins instead of hot, red blood! YOU are more reptile than man, George, so low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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