MRR Movie Review: Lincoln


Movie Review: "Lincoln"

-- Rating: PG 13 (Intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage, and brief strong language)
Length: 150 minutes
Release Date: Nov 16, 2012
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Genre: Biography, Drama, and History

"Lincoln" opens to bleak scenes of men killing each other in the muck. As he did in "Saving Private Ryan", Spielberg does not attempt to glorify war and its consequences, but prefers to highlight the suffering that the war brought to the nation as a whole. We see Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) riding through the battle's aftermath, and this helps establish the movie's context and tone very quickly. We quickly understand how slavery was an issue that divided the entire nation, and how abolition of slavery was a truly stupendous achievement.

Lincoln realizes that the Emancipation Proclamation will not prevent the South from perpetrating slavery in the country. Hence, he decides to amend the Constitution to ensure slavery is abolished forever. This brings him in conflict with the Confederate States of America and his own Congress.

Virulent Democrats and vacillating Republicans oppose his move until the last scene. Democrats oppose the abolition of slavery while Republicans fear that the drastic and revolutionary move may backfire and offend the masses. This conflict is beautifully etched in a scene where Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) bluntly asks his President to choose between abolishing slavery and ending the war.

Spielberg cleverly introduces a deadline to the passage of the Amendment by quickly establishing how it would be impossible for Lincoln to abolish slavery once the South rejoins the Union. Lincoln charms and shames his opponents into supporting the end of slavery through folksy anecdotes, and turns a blind eye to the Secretary of State's attempt to use congressional horse-traders W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes), and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), to trick, convince, plead, and even bribe Congressmen into supporting the Amendment.

This shows the pragmatic politician in Lincoln, something we tend to ignore when deifying him as a saint. The movie regales us through the scenes where the pragmatic President tempers his idealism and relies on methods that belie his general image as an honest and idealistic President. Thankfully, the director does not sermonize or moralize, but prefers to let the audience decide for themselves whether Lincoln's ends justified the means he adopted.

The movie also highlights how Lincoln's pragmatism and ruthlessness was tempered by his strong moral views. We instinctively understand that Lincoln chose to act against slavery, not for some selfish political gains, but because he found it morally reprehensible and indefensible.

Instead of focusing on Lincoln's life in general, the movie focuses on the weeks following his 1864 reelection. However, this movie is not about politics alone. We see Lincoln as a caring father who does not mind indulging and spoiling his sons, young Tad (Gulliver McGrath) and Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The movie also focuses on his strained relationship with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field). Already burdened with the huge responsibility of abolishing slavery, he finds it difficult to sympathize with his unstable and grief-stricken wife. Sally does a terrific job of portraying a mother who desperately wants her children to be safe at all costs.

The movie could have easily only focused on Lincoln's positive aspects. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner deserve credit for resisting the temptation. The ensemble cast lives up to the pre-release hype. Daniel Day-Lewis does a magnificent job of portraying the most popular and revered President in the history of the country. He slips into the character effortlessly, and the audience quickly forgets that they are not watching the real thing. Day-Lewis wisely underplays his role and brings his mannerisms to life.

Day-Lewis' efforts are supplemented by fantastic performances by the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Lee Pace, David Strathairn, and Bruce McGill. While it is impossible to overshadow Abraham Lincoln in a movie named "Lincoln", the supporting cast comes close to achieving this impossible task. Tommy Lee Jones plays radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens with sheer aplomb and élan. Stevens seems more enthusiastic about abolishing slavery than the President himself. However, he has his own reasons to support the move and comes off as the perfect foil for the graceful and stately Lincoln.

The movie never seems boring even when it focuses on backroom discussions, lobbying, and Senate and Congress debates. The movie keeps the audience entertained until the very end.

Overall, this movie is probably the most entertaining history lesson yet on how slavery was abolished by Lincoln.

Stars: 4 of 5