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A Living, Breathing Lincoln Like No Other,
This review is from: Lincoln (Blu-ray+DVD) (Blu-ray)
NOTE: This review DOES NOT contain SPOILERS!
Do you remember when you were a young student reading your history textbook and--while you had been up until that moment viewing artists' renditions of famous events and people--you were now in the latter half of the 19th century, and you'd reached the portion of your history text when there were actual photos of these events?
In fact, staring at you from the page, is the face of Abraham Lincoln himself.
If you do remember such a moment, you might be equally startled by the intimacy and immediacy of "Lincoln," a stunning work of art that marries two of cinema's most powerful forces: Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day Lewis. How is it that these two amazing legends have not worked together before?
The power of this film is captured in the single word of the title; this is no "The Man, The Myth, The Legend" mythology...no sweeping panorama told in glorious panoramic cutaways. No; it is the story of one man, and how this one man took on one cause, one battle, and fought the good fight away from the dirt and gunpowder of the battlefield, trading it in for the backrooms and chambers of an even more wicked Washington D.C.
It is the story behind the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, banning slavery as an institution. It may puzzle modern-day viewers that such an amendment ever had to be written, but HOW it was passed is an amazing story well worth telling. (And it's practically impossible to avoid making parallels with today's President, his House of Representatives, and their conflicts.)
"Lincoln" is a stirring story, full of intrigue and intelligence, and you will be stirred by the emotional sway conveyed by the camera and the script. Tony Kushner fashioned the screenplay from Doris Kearn Goodwin's extremely well-research and well-told Team of Rivals. As one might expect, it is the story of how Lincoln was compelled to "work" Washington, how he was able to coerce the varied forces of a warring Union political jungle and make it bend to his will.
But it is more than that, and it was this that I found most forceful: the WHY. And while you think you know it--that it is against human dignity to hold another man's freedom under your thumb--you are of course correct, but also misjudging the ideal for the real, practicality of the amendment. And when the President lays out his rationale to his cabinet--when he spells out the political REASONS behind the passage of this amendment--it is a stirring, shrewd, and spellbinding moment that is as insightful, intelligent, and (if it were to have failed) as frightening as they come.
There were several moments within this movie that moved me like that: one was as tiny as a moment can be, though it occurred at a time that meant as much to American history as any one moment can, and it was simply this: Abraham Lincoln needed a message sent by telegraph, and he found two men in the communications room who were capable of such a thing. After it was sent, the President of the United States sat with them and conversed, holding them in awe, all while he recounted a lesson he was once taught in math that followed him to this day.
And that is the power of this "Lincoln." It takes a great actor, and a great director, to put their considerable skills hard at work at stepping back and letting the man shine.
I WAS those telegraph men, mesmerized by the man--Daniel Day Lewis makes him that real. It is easy to lose oneself in the moment and believe you are sitting with the man. It is his hard, worn face, his stooped shoulders, his often grim demeanor, his high, reedy voice, his gentle, intelligent eyes...it is all there in Lewis' portrayal. And his mind...it is a mark of Lewis' portrait of the man that Lincoln's vaunted intelligence always shows through, and the same is true of his compassion. It is an amazing thing Lewis and Spielberg have accomplished--a film that is stirring when it needs to be, harried and frazzled when it needs to be, and gentle and mindful of the human soul, ALWAYS.
As is usual with his films, Spielberg is best when he sets the scene, brings the actor forward, does the grunt work, then steps back and lets the scene play out, mindful of details as minor as a tapping finger or a twinkle in an eye. From what I have seen of the director's career (and that's just about every movie he's done) it appears that he stresses over every detail, then lets his people do their work, making sure his camera is there to capture every nuance of the moment. His movies seem so alive, so frames so full of sight and sound that the film seems close to exploding with energy. It's no different here in "Lincoln" than it was in Jaws, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Special Edition), or the dozens of films in between.
As is also usual, the film is populated by great actors doing great work. Sally Field's Mary Todd is a wonder, her ballyhooed "madness" evident, but in Field's hands it's more the anguish of a mother who has lost one son and fears the loss of another--and is powerless to protect either him or the husband she loves. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Lincoln's son Robert Todd, was fine in the small but pivotal role as the son who wished not to be protected any longer from the war.
But it is Tommy Lee Jones who really steals the frame each time he is present. He is simply terrific as the bombastic and bewigged Thaddeus Stevens, an ardent abolitionist. Other noted roles are filled by Hal Holbrook, James Spader, Jackie Earle Haley, S. Epatha Merkerson, Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McGill, and there are almost countless others.
What this film really left me with was the sense that I was there, and so was Lincoln, the man. When the film ended--and despite its length it ended far too soon--I was struck by how much I would miss him. And this...the accomplishment of creating a man out of the ether, is really the most remarkable achievement. I will miss this man Lincoln, but I will always treasure Spielberg and Lewis for giving me this living, breathing man of history.