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posted Friday, November 9, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 45

Honest enough
Spielberg's Lincoln a rousing historical document

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

LINCOLN
Opens November 9


The Civil War is nearing its end. President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), just elected to a second term, knows this, as do his most trusted advisors like Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn). The South will surrender, of that there can be no doubt, and as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (Mad Men's Jared Harris) movies closer to victory, the longest and bloodiest conflict in the history of the still-young United States of America will soon be over.

This is why Lincoln knows that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution must be voted on and passed by the House of Representative before the lame-duck session comes to an end. With the war over, a constitutional ban on slavery might not be possible, and with the legality of his Emancipation Proclamation at Gettysburg in question, the President feels this issue must be settled now, before the conflict ends.

Inspired by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's landmark Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg's long-gestating Lincoln finally makes its way to the multiplex this weekend, delivering a sobering and soaring story of determination and heroism belying its stodgy Capitol Hill and White House settings. Fitted with a script by Tony winner and Academy Award nominee Tony Kushner (Munich, Angels in America) that ranks as one of his finest, the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler's List filmmaker has delivered his most restrained and minimalistic effort in eons - at least since Saving Private Ryan, probably since Sugarland Express - and has reminded us just how great he can be when he puts his mind to it.

DAY-LEWIS ASTOUNDING High praise? Yes, and it's meant to be. Lincoln, while not without a couple of missteps, is a remarkable experience. More than just an important piece of history, the movie is an enthralling and invigorating sojourn into the mind of a leader driven to keep his nation intact and willing to do almost anything to ensure those residing within its borders have the opportunities extolled by the Constitution. There is excitement here, drama and humor, too, everything building to a climax of personal responsibility and inherent virtue all of us at some innate level aspire to.

Day-Lewis is every bit as awesome as you'd expect him to be. His performance as honest old Abe is a sublime and cagey mixture of heart, hokum, moxie, and grit, the actor disappearing inside the role so fully that everything he's done before, every Oscar-winning performance, vanishes into the ether. There are sequences and scenes where you never know what he is going to say, how he is going to act, or what it is, exactly, that's on the forefront of his mind. He's leader and father, caregiver and seducer, lion and mouse - using whichever trait will best serve the given moment, trying to be everything and anything for those he cares about, even if he's not entirely sure which tack is best.

A PARABLE FOR OUR TIMES
Spielberg and Kushner have tapped into something with this story, have found modern parallels only the most clueless viewers will fail to notice. Much like the now re-elected 44th President managed with the automotive bailout and the health care reform law (i.e., Obamacare), Lincoln fought, and fought hard, for the 13th Amendment even though he knew it was wildly unpopular (even within his own Republican Party). But he also knew that if he didn't get it passed at that precise moment, at a time before the war ended and while a bevy of Democrats still retained their seats, more than likely it wouldn't get passed at all. He used the political capital garnered from his own re-election to get it done by any means necessary, because he was positive it was the right thing to do, an action history has shown to be more than accurate.

And it's fascinating to watch. Spielberg and Kushner stage these events with evasive bravado, not shying away from some of the shadier aspects of the dealing (and double-dealing) Lincoln was forced to engage in as well as the truth-stretching required to keep his own party in line. The dialogue is razor sharp, constantly on the money, maintaining historical accuracy but effused with a rat-a-tat-tat zippiness found in classic romantic comedies like His Girl Friday or The Philadelphia Story. Moreover, all of this closed-room wheeling and dealing, coupled with raucous speeches made on the floor of the House of Representatives, generates the kind of same suspense-fueled verbal pyrotechnics of past courtroom classics like Anatomy of a Murder or Judgment at Nuremberg. It's electric, watching it more thrilling than just about any suspense flick or action extravaganza released in 2012.

SPADER A TREAT
There are some great supporting turns, most notably from Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones (portraying Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens, almost a certain Oscar nominee), Hal Holbrook (as legendary D.C. power broker Preston Blair), and Sally Field, cutting a potent and emotionally turbulent swath as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. But for my money, the standout performance comes from none other than James Spader, his inhabitation of gregarious and freewheeling dealmaker (think of him as an early version of a lobbyist) W.N. Bilbo one of the picture's most unabashed joys.

There are some overreaches. I'm not certain Lincoln's relationship with his children, youngest Tad (Gulliver McGrath) and eldest Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), comes into as sharp a focus as either Spielberg or Kushner hoped it would. Also, while I liked the moment the film chooses to end on, a definite case could be made that things should have wrapped up much earlier, going out on a brilliantly lit scene of a wearied but unbowed President heading out to a certain theater most viewers will know the tragic historical significance of.

But, truly, I can find little of fault in regards to Lincoln. This is a triumph for all involved, a high water mark for Spielberg and company impossible to dismiss or resist. The director rises to heights many of us weren't sure he was still capable of, the film itself a rousing historical document he and his team should be more than proud of. It's outstanding, and in the end I'm not sure anything more needs to be said.



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