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Lincoln's humanity exalted as he juggles civil war, abolition and fractious family life

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Here is the peculiar genius of Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln: It exalts an individual's ability for great achievement in the political arena. And it simultaneously confirms our worst suspicions about how dirty that arena can get.

This is a bit of a relief. The anticipated big-screen treatment of Abraham Lincoln would be one of those sunbeamy film biopic deifications Hollywood usually reserves for Jesus Christ.

It helps immeasurably that Spielberg cast Daniel Day-Lewis as the president, reasoning that the notoriously immersive actor could flesh out the role and vitalize the 16th president's troubled life. Lincoln is already a big stone monument in Washington, D.C., and he doesn't need to be monumentalized here.

Hence, the screenplay focuses on the last four months of the president's life, as he strove to end the Civil War after four years of slaughter, and simultaneously abolish slavery by passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Playwright Tony Kushner, adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, does indeed emphasize Lincoln's mastery of the political process, especially treacherous turf in 1865. On one side, the Democrats (who resemble the most rabid of contemporary Tea Party Republicans) are opposed to the abolition of slavery on both racist and pragmatic grounds. It could play havoc with the economy, and anyway, the negotiation of the end of the Civil War is unlikely if slavery can't be used as a bargaining chip.

On the other hand, the "radical Republican" congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) thinks the 13th Amendment doesn't go far enough to guarantee full rights to freed slaves. In between, Lincoln's trusted adviser and Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn, exercising a bone-dry wit) slyly utilizes a meet-and-greet with a couple of average Americans to demonstrate that abolition is not a hot-button issue among average joes who stand to be inconvenienced in the area of their wallets.

To win the necessary number of votes, Seward dispatches a trio of agents (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and an especially hilarious James Spader) to bribe and cajole a selection of malleable opponents into helping pass the amendment.

Spielberg balances the figure of Lincoln as a political animal with a portrait of a man negotiating a fractious family life. Lincoln doted on his young son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), given free run of the White House as his oft unstable wife Mary Todd Lincoln (a powerful performance by Sally Field) is in sustained mourning the loss of their middle son, two years dead. Lincoln's eldest, Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), wants to enlist in the army and is blocked from doing so by his father, mindful of the fact his death could cause Mary to unravel altogether.

While Lincoln was hardly an Everyman, the film does create a ping of weird familiarity to anyone who has ever faced difficulty balancing the personal and professional halves of life, a testament to Day-Lewis's ability to find Lincoln's humanity.

More importantly, the film resonates as a timely political parable of how great things are possible in politics, given intelligent applications of craft, compromise and consensus. The film's release just after the 2012 election could not be more timely.

Other voices

Excerpts from select reviews of Lincoln:

"Here is an artist capable of fully immersing us in the epochal moments that shaped us as a people, yet also eager to lay bare his fear of us as a people not measuring up to those moments. Worrying over this, he lunges at complex -- even existential -- anxieties impossible for him to storyboard."

-- Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice

"This isn't a Hollywood-style historical epic, like War Horse or Amistad -- it's history on an intimate domestic scale, Lincoln wandering the halls of the White House wrapped in an old wool blanket."

-- Dana Stevens, Slate

"The movie feels like an expensive, personal plea from Spielberg to President Obama to start fighting dirty and playing for keeps. But it fails to engage dramatically. It never truly explains why Lincoln's cabinet is at odds, convinces us why this fight has to be waged and won even before the war is over, or makes the political double-dealers as interesting as the boys in blue or grey."

-- Stephen Whitty, Newark Star-Ledger

"... Noble, civic-minded, exhaustingly researched, immaculately detailed, crowded with a parade of cameos by good actors who look like Smith Brothers cough drop models, and noteworthy for another critic-proof performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. It is all of those things. But Lincoln is also a colossal bore. It is so pedantic, slow-moving, sanitized and sentimental that I kept pinching myself to stay awake -- which, like the film itself, didn't always work."

-- Rex Reed, New York Observer

Movie Review


Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field

Grant Park, Polo Park


150 minutes

4 stars out of five stars

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2012 D1

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