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Lincoln

February 3, 2013

Lincoln (2012)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones

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Synopsis: US President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has just won a second term in office, and is negotiating the tightrope of trying to get the 13th Amendment to the US constitution passed – that which seeks to end slavery – while also trying to end the US Civil War.

Review: Calling Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln uncinematic would be to state the bleedin’ obvious, and to some extent it’s beside the point anyway. With Lincoln, I sense Spielberg is really relishing the opportunity to go inwards and shade his story in the necessary drabness and solemnity that a stodgy historical telling of the final drawn-out acts of the US Civil War and the Abolition of Slavery amendment movement require. I imagine it’s a story that only a seasoned filmmaker like Spielberg could make and be attracted to – a real “grey-beard’s” movie if you like. Indeed, the recurrent themes and ideas that crop up again and again in the film are those of sagacity, maturity, and the necessary compromises that come as part of ageing.

The central plot dialectic is whether Abraham Lincoln is right to jeapardise the potential ending of the Civil War (the Confederacy is on the cusp of surrendering), by trying to push through the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution which seeks to abolish slavery (but potentially antagonise various factions in the House of Representatives and the surrendering Confederate states). At the centre of this dialectic is Lincoln himself, and Daniel Day-Lewis being the earnest method actor he is, wastes no opportunity to – largely subtly and gracefully – demonstrate Lincoln’s burden through his stooping, wearied gait and sleep-deprived, care-worn eyes. It’s a charming performance by Day-Lewis, and he makes a nice showcase of Lincoln as the arch mediator and raconteur in those moments where Lincoln slips off into indulgent anecdote. To me though, the stand-out performance in a uniformly brilliantly acted film is Tommy Lee Jones, who just lives the part of Thaddeus Stevens – the man who has stoically fought for the emancipation of slaves for the best part of thirty years.

In general, it’s a film to admire rather than to love, and I think Spielberg slightly mars the pleasing austerity of much of his storytelling by slipping into familiar, sentimental family mode when cutting to Lincoln framed in sunlit embrace with his young son as the Amendment vote is counted in the House of Representatives. Still, Lincoln absolutely outshines its similarly-themed English cousin, Amazing Grace, which gave a shallow, hackneyed account of William Wilberforce trying to get the Abolition of Slavery through the British parliament. (February 2013)

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