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Spielberg On Our 16th President,
This review is from: Lincoln (DVD)
Given the difficulties of America in the 21st century, it is oftentimes difficult to remember that America has faced much more challenging and much more tragic circumstances throughout its history. The biggest challenge America ever faced was not a war for freedom in some faraway part of the world, but a war for freedom on its own soil. The Civil War, in which Southern states split off from the rest of the Union over the issue of whether African-Americans should remain enslaved, tore America apart between 1861 and 1865; and only one man was able to settle the issue. That man was Abraham Lincoln, our nation's 16th president. The last three months of Lincoln's life, in which he managed to accomplish so much only to have it end in his assassination, is what is detailed in LINCOLN, director Steven Spielberg's impassioned and highly involved American epic.
Stepping into the shoes of "Honest Abe" is English actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who essays a Lincoln not as we thought we knew him, with a stentorian manner of speaking, but a high, reedy-voiced man reflecting his origins in Kentucky and Illinois whose word nevertheless carried considerable gravitas, even as he presided over the messiest conflict America would ever see. Not only does Day-Lewis preside over the immense task, after having won a second term in office, of trying to end that conflict, but also to resolve once and for all the issue of slavery by the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Making things worse for Day-Lewis, even members of his own cabinet, including Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) are torn on the issue of compromise with ending the Civil War and passing the amendment with the required two-thirds majority needed in the House of Representatives. The task for Lincoln thus falls in no small measure on two prominent Northern politicians, Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), to not only keep his Republican majority in line, but also to cause twenty Democrats to defect from the hard line of keeping slavery in place, come hell or high water. The debate in the House, particularly with Jones commanding so much attention, is as bitter and rancorous as any we've seen in our modern era; and the final vote is 119-56 (with eight abstentions, it is just enough to allow the 13th Amendment to pass). In the end, Day-Lewis visits many of the Civil War battle sites and reflects, in the days before his violent demise, the cost of war and the battle of ideals.
Spielberg had handled great American historical issues and eras before in such films as THE COLOR PURPLE, AMISTAD, and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, but LINCOLN was clearly a personal obsession for him; indeed, this project was twelve years in the making. And while he may not have been that much of a history buff either in grade school, high school, or while briefly a student at Long Beach State in the late 1960s, he nevertheless developed a taste for it throughout his career. The impact of the Holocaust as shown in SCHINDLER'S LIST is what almost certainly fired his imagination, to understand the why of that tragedy; and in LINCOLN, he does very much the same thing, in illustrating why Lincoln was so important to America, not only of his time, but of all time, leading up to the 2008 election of our nation's first African-American president. And here, he allows Day-Lewis to give a portrait of Lincoln that rates right up there with Henry Fonda's portrayal in John Ford's 1938 film YOUNG MR, LINCOLN, and Gregory Peck's in the epic 1982 TV miniseries THE BLUE AND THE GRAY. Sally Field is also superlative as his wife Mary Lincoln; and Holbrook and Jones, seasoned veterans both, are excellent as the men fighting the good fight.
The usual excellent score by John Williams (with some period music thrown in) and the cinematography by Spielberg's usual DP Janusz Kaminski, along with the performances, make this 149 minute-long epic extremely breathless; and Tony Kushner's fine screenplay (based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team Of Rivals"), gives the cast and Spielberg plenty to work with. As LINCOLN proves once again, Spielberg is a director capable of bringing the most difficult subject matter to dramatic life and understanding more about ourselves as human beings and as a nation at large. Great filmmaking does that, and, without question, LINCOLN is an example of great filmmaking, certainly one of the great films of 2012.
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Initial post: Feb 15, 2013 8:49:20 AM PST
Brilliant review, thanks!
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