Review: Lincoln – Story of a master storyteller, masterfully told

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LincolnIf you dig politics and/or history then you are going to love the new Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln, about how our 16th President valiantly fought against all odds to change the world by abolishing slavery in the United States. If you love great dialogue that is masterfully delivered, then that’s just the gravy on this meaty historical drama.

For most Americans, President Lincoln is probably the most beloved figure in our history. Even before we knew him as a valorous vampire-slayer, he was already known for his superheroic actions as the man most responsible for freeing an entire race of people from enslavement and forever altering the direction of our country.

Lincoln’s life could fill an entire trilogy of films, but Spielberg’s effort concentrates almost entirely on the period of time (1864 – 1865) surrounding the President’s efforts to pass the 13th amendment to the Constitution and abolish slavery in the United States. The Lincoln screenplay by Tony Kushner is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

President Lincoln is well known for having brought many of his political rivals into his own cabinet and for his ability to work with opposing factions. It’s a style and a strategy that many politicians espouse today and that President Obama even put into practice when he made his chief democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, his Secretary of State. (Lincoln made his republican rival William H. Seward his Secretary of State.)

The Lincoln film is focused on the politics of the Civil War era and for the most part takes place behind the closed doors of the White House and Congress where the political sausage of that turbulent time was made. If you have no interest in how our laws were created or the people who made them, then you will probably be bored silly by this movie, because the bulk of this dialogue heavy picture is spent on the strategery (thanks Will Ferrell and George W. Bush) behind getting the 13th amendment passed.

LincolnFor me, the words in this film should share equal billing with the stellar cast that speaks the magnificently written lines in Lincoln’s script. The tone of the dialogue in this movie reminded me of the excellent True Grit 2010 remake in that it is more akin to literature than to any normally spoken conversation – and the style works beautifully.

I was fascinated by the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. Whenever he is on screen I was completely captivated, as if the President himself had time-traveled to the year 2012 in order to star in his own movie. Day-Lewis, who won the Academy Award for “Best Actor” in  2007, for his portrayal of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, is certain to win the category again as I cannot imagine a better acting achievement this year. He perfectly captures the bravery, dogged determination, and human frailty of this simple but intelligent man who found himself in what was probably one of the most stressful positions in human history.

There has been quite a bit of news coverage regarding the voice that Daniel Day-Lewis uses as President Lincoln and it is certainly different from any other representation I’ve ever seen of the man. It’s a higher pitched sound than you would expect to come from a being with those iconic features, but it doesn’t take long to get used to; and the fact that historians have said that the voice is actually more accurate than many of the other previous portrayals of Lincoln helps to calm the initial “what the heck?” impulse.

Lincoln was known for loving to tell stories and for using his command of language to illustrate points through analogies and prairie fables; and the best sequences in this movie come when the character patiently and methodically tells his tales in order to communicate a difficult concept or diffuse a stressful situation. I could listen to this man all day.

LincolnSally Field plays Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln and the veteran actress does a wonderful job as a woman who has endured the painful loss of a child and is at least slightly mentally unstable; and who at times is more of a detriment to her loving husband than a supportive spouse during his and the nation’s most desperate of times.

The entire cast of Lincoln is first rate and includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Dark Knight Rises), Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black) and Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen). Of particular note is David Strathairn who plays Secretary of State William Seward and Hal Holbrook who plays Francis Preston Blair – both actors have previously played the 16th President and  Holbrook even won an Emmy for the part in the 1974 TV mini-series, the North and South.

There was obviously a great deal of attention to detail paid to the set designs in this film and anyone who is a fan of the large top hats and clothing of the Victorian era is going to be thrilled with the accuracy of this movies costumes and props.

I love director Steven Spielberg and his illustrious resume of films. This man does not make bad movies and even his mediocre efforts are more entertaining than most of the film fare you’ll find in the theaters at any given moment. But he is known for his sappy moments, but some of them in Lincoln just seem to be so systematically manipulative that are almost eye-rollingly awful. He is undoubtedly a master film craftsman, but the Spielbergisms in this film were a little undisciplined and over played.

LincolnIn addition to some of the overt heartstring-pulling and overwrought plot devices in this film, I was also a little put off by the way this movie ended. Yes, we all know that Lincoln met with a dastardly end, but Spielberg ends the film tastefully and honorably…and then goes the extra mile to include the assassination and death of the most famous President, making the ending seem out of context with the rest of the story’s timeline.

Despite my very minor complaints, this is a fantastic film that I thoroughly enjoyed. To be honest (like Abe), I fully intend to see this movie again just to revel in its spectacular prose and enjoy the incredible delivery by Daniel Day-Lewis. Lincoln is a must-see for anyone who enjoys of politics, history, language or awesome acting.
Grade: 9/10

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About the author

Bob Leeper

Bob Leeper is the co-owner and manager of "Arizona’s Pop Culture and Alternative Art Network," Evermore Nevermore. He is the co-creator of the pop culture events Steampunk Street and ENCREDICON, and is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society. He also curates the Facebook fan site The Arizona Cave – AZ Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and is one of the few brave and bold fans of Jar Jar Binks.

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