It was the "Steven Spielberg" label that drew me in, and I was curious to see what he would do with a film about an actual historical figure in an actual historical setting, set in an actually critical time period.
The Civil War is winding down, with so many rivers of blood shed that it should break any American's heart to perceive it. Abraham Lincoln believes that the only way forward, in good conscience, is to abolish slavery, and set the tone for the United States from then on.
The problem is that should the war end, should the Southern states parley for an end to fighting, and should the Union accept their terms for an end to armed conflict, the 13th proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States to abolish slavery would be put to a vote which included pro-slavery Southern states. To Lincoln, the only path forward for the country in terms of civil rights (limited though they were at that time) is to push forward the amendment to forbid slavery before any such end to the Civil War is realized.
That's the story. It is a story of secluded rooms, of secret deals conducted by candlelight and dim windows, of people wrestling with their moral compasses amid awareness of their political party's limitations and ambitions, of people with their own deep shadows of doubt and fear and burdens -- including the President himself.
This is not a biography of Abraham Lincoln, it is the gears and the grinding and the dirty oil and pain of passing the 13th Amendment. Lincoln was at the center of that political battle, wielding his power as Commander-in-Chief, as President, as a lawyer, as a man who felt he had to play the lawyer to get done what a President had to get done, as a President who had to question his own actions in light of the law.
This was a good movie, and I would recommend every adult to see it, if not in the theater, then on DVD, and admonish them to pay attention.
Our theater -- in the first showing in our area -- was packed, with old folks like us, and with teens who had obviously been bussed in to see the movie in lieu of classes.
I doubt that the kids -- most of them, anyway -- had any understanding of what they were seeing, but at least they were well-behaved.
I wish that every American adult could see this film and understand that every issue we debate, every law we pass is tangled up in people, and public opinion, and what will be most advantageous for the politician who promotes the cause, or decries the cause. It's not necessarily the common good that drives our legislation.
All in all, I thought it was a good movie, well done, telling in its honesty.
Except for the end, when General Robert E. Lee leaves Appomattox and mounts his famous horse, Traveller.
THE WORST HAIR DYE JOB ON A HORSE, EVER.
So I look at the list of movies that are available at our local movie mart, and I make my decision based on one word: Steven Spielberg.
I think I've seen most all of Spielberg's movies. There were a couple exceptions. For example, I have never seen Schindler's List. I know, I know, you are asking me how in the world I could have missed that one. Well, truth is the combination of that subject and Spielberg's talent actually scared me off that movie. Try watching The Color Purple and Amistad. Both of those movies ripped my heart out, and that was when I was younger and had a heart. I have just never been able to offer myself up to the emotional beating I am sure that Schindler's List can deliver.
I also missed The Terminal. Just did. Sorry.
But aside from that, I've seen them all, and the reason I've seen them all is that Spielberg simply does not make bad films. Some are not as good as others, but even the ones I didn't care for were spectacularly made movies. So distinctive is the appearance of Mr. Spielberg's movies that when Super 8 came out in 2011, it was said that it was a tribute to Spielberg because it looked like a Spielberg film. Every Spielberg film I've seen has a great big Spielberg thumb print pleasingly spread across the screen.
I am not knowledgeable enough to tell you exactly what Spielberg does to achieve his results, but I can describe what I see. There is flair for the exotic, for striking visual images, for meticulous use of lighting that not only sets the mood, but deepens the storytelling by allowing you to see details you might otherwise miss. Go back and watch Empire of the Sun and see how much of the story is told entirely through striking, glorious imagery. There is no dialogue for long periods of the film as the story rolls across the screen.
Now, jump forward to Spielberg's latest offering, Lincoln. Here is a story that chronicles the events of January 1865 as President Lincoln pushes hard for the House of Representatives to adopt the proposal of the 13th Constitutional Amendment banning slavery. There was a great sense of urgency on the president's part, because he knew that the war was winding down, and with the end of the war, the representatives from the southern states would be returning to Congress, and their numbers and their staunch resistance to the abolition of slavery would make it impossible to pass such an amendment.
It is an intriguing story for the political drama, and yet this is a story not primarily about politics, but about the man Lincoln. President Lincoln is a giant in our history, a man of mythical proportions. His task, leading the country through its bloodiest conflict, and in the process confronting the colossal moral dilemma of slavery, is no doubt the stuff of legend, but Abe Lincoln was a real person, a man of uncommon presence and vision, a man with a sense of humor, and a husband and father who struggled with the pressures of family life. It is that Lincoln, the ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who rarely is portrayed in the history books (at least the ones I was exposed to).
Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln as a very human figure, allowing us to see not the legend, but the man who struggles under the burden of enormous pressure, a man who senses that the window of opportunity to change the course of history is a small and rapidly closing window. He is an honorable man but also a realist. He is a moral man but also a politician, and he knows that politics is not always an honest profession. He is a man who in his public and personal life, knows that progress is forged in compromise.
The acting in this film is top notch. Day-Lewis is powerful and rich as Lincoln. Tommy Lee Jones is brilliant as the curmudgeonly Thaddeus Stevens. Sally Fields does a wonderful job as the troubled Mary Todd Lincoln. Similarly the writing is impeccable. Tony Kushner is a Pulitzer Prize winning and Oscar nominated playwright who delivers a script that is lean, sharp, engrossing and I assume reasonably accurate.
As with any "historical drama," you have to take on faith that what you see is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the times and events depicted. I have that kind of faith in Spielberg, even if in this case, what I saw as lacking in the film was the characteristic Spielberg thumb print. This movie did not look to me like a Spielberg movie. For once, the director stepped back and did not awe me with his direction. A lot of this movie centers around dialogue, and the dialogue is largely from meetings in "smoke filled back rooms" in Washington. It is about political intrigue and intimate family moments with the Lincolns. It is not the subject matter that lends itself to the exotic imagery so often associated with Spielberg films. It is well done, and the artwork in this movie certainly seems to convey the dark, cold pall of a war weary Washington D.C. in January. Yet this was the most unlike-Spielberg Spielberg movie I've seen.
But that's okay. In stepping back a bit and not wowing us with his special brand of technical wizardry, Spielberg has allowed Lincoln to be that much more of the focus of the movie.
Of course had Lincoln been compelled to push for passage the 13th Amendment as result of a message he received in his mashed potatoes from aliens cloned from DNA taken from artifacts recovered from the crash site of the ancient astronauts and brought back to Washington by an adventurous archeology professor ... well, that would have been all right by me.
If you want some intelligent, informative and thought-provoking entertainment, it is certainly worth a trip to the theater to see Lincoln.
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