Lincoln (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
17Nov/125

Lincoln (2012)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

I grew up in Illinois. The face of Abraham Lincoln is slapped on everything there, from the license plates to the pennies. That being said, Lincoln is as much a cipher to us as to anyone else. He is a symbol in America, and while he's prolific, details of his life and philosophies remain debated to this day.

Steven Spielberg's attempt to grasp the great man in the appropriately titled Lincoln speaks to the same traces of smoke that surround the mystique. Rather than a straightforward life and death biography, Spielberg takes one month of the man's life and uses that to speak volumes of him as both a politician and a family man. We don't see the Lincoln of the every moment, but the last of him, and his final great moments.

Playing Lincoln is Daniel Day-Lewis. He's not an actor I've ever cared for particularly much, but as a latter day Paul Muni he'll do. He's gone full chameleon here as the titular man, and with Spielberg he's crafted an icon who acts like the symbol but whose heart breaks like the man.

"Come on, men, the set for War Horse is right over there!"

The film is centered mostly on Lincoln's attempts to get the 13th Amendment passed through the House of Representatives early in his second and final term. The amendment would forbid slavery, which most people are terrified to do since it might lead to equally galling things like racial equality and the black man being able to vote. A gallery of allies and opponents fights it out on the floor with Lincoln waiting pensively in the wings.

The problem is that the Civil War, after four horrendous years, is finally wrapping up. The North is simply mopping up the last of it, and the South has come begging for a truce. What rests on Lincoln's head is that it's obvious that the reintegrated Southern states and a swath of the North is very much opposed to the idea of equality; ending the war means that the chances of the amendment succeeding are basically nil. Every day he pushes for the amendment, though, Lincoln is sacrificing more soldiers on the battlefield. Is that just?

Lincoln thinks so, and that's reflected in the stories he tells. He's a rambler, a man who loves to tell a few tawdry tales to calm nerves and get other people's guards down. But most impressive about this Lincoln is his sense of empathy. The way Day-Lewis portrays him, it's hard to believe that there could be a nicer man in the entire world. Even when he's screaming at his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Fields) or desperately trying to discourage his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from joining the army, you can feel a man who's simply hurt so much that he's grasping onto the things that mean the most of him with a clumsy frustration.

The old version of the internet wasn't as much fun. But still considerably less stupid.

Lincoln here isn't perfect, but comprehensible. Interestingly enough, the same can be said for the film's portrayal of the democratic process. Political alliances shift and falter, and Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) enlists the help of a trio of Albany men to try and shore up the required votes from members who will be losing their seats at the end of the month. This opens the film up to 'hijinks', and it's a little refreshing to see the bawdy levels to which the American people could stoop for their power plays.

As a person with a degree in history, I can't praise it for being wholly accurate. But I'm the crappy kind of history major: I believe that history is what ends up written about it. It should be a required addendum to read this piece by Kate Masur about the whitewashing of the film, and I'm sure more than a few huffy historians will nitpick this work to the point that even fans of convoluted cross media wonks like The Avengers will be blue in the face.

I'll read those articles, because I enjoy doing that; you don't have to (and I, unsurprisingly, can't make you). Lincoln is the music of history, not the lyrics; it's what our stories are, what they can tell us, and the joy in seeing progress unfold in a mere two and a half hours.

You have to be troubled about how much of the country was still in favor of slavery by the end of the Civil War, even in the North.

We rarely get that pleasure in real life, and the vicarious thrill of seeing progress unfold, told by some of the greatest talents of the cinema world, is a sublime tale. It revels in the mystery of what we are and what we will be. Lincoln's words loom both over the man, the movie, and the audience, and, flaws and all, the attempt to capture a glimpse of the man here is a breathtaking achievement.

Posted by Danny

Comments (5) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I agree with you on Daniel Day Lewis. He has never been my favorite actor but he was great in this. I also loved James Spader and his “hijinks” in this film. Great review of a great movie.

  2. Haha knew you’d love this


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