Monday, December 24, 2012


Abraham Lincoln was arguably the greatest American president in history. To try to present his life on the big screen is an ambitious undertaking, one that would require a filmmaker with both the experience of few masterpieces under his or her belt, while also having the audacity to attempt to portray a legendary historical figure. I suppose Steven Spielberg fits the bill. The filmic story of Lincoln is both a biography and the tale of the passing of the 13th Amendment into the U.S. Constitution. I appreciated the focus of the story on Lincoln's actions near the end of the Civil War, not an all-encompassing biopic attempting to get his entire life on screen. You see his marriage, his fatherhood, his politics, his flaws, and his mythology.

It is this latter aspect that fascinates me most about Lincoln. Like any famous historical figure, the president became a bit of a legend. The mythology surrounding him blurs our memories that he was, in fact, a real human being. He was a husband with a notoriously emotional and distraught wife. He was a father who deeply loved his children and suffered deeply when their lives were taken by disease. He made mistakes. He made jokes. He got angry. He got depressed. Lincoln shows much of this, while also reveling in the mythology of a wise-but-simple leader who told long stories and fought for the freedom of slaves.

Now, I'm not a history buff. I have read exactly one historical biography in my lifetime, and I'm pretty sure that I held a C average in my social sciences and history classes throughout high school. I'm unsure about all the historical accuracies of Lincoln as a film. A brief perusal through the Internet reveals a mixed bag, but one that seems to lean more towards to side of historical accuracy. Spielberg based the film off Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The book and film show how Lincoln and his cabinet--made up mostly of political rivals--reached across the political aisle and managed to unite a nation broken apart by war, economics, and slavery. Perhaps our own American government can learn a thing or two from history, lest we be doomed to repeat ourselves in our divisive ways.

For a Spielberg movie, Lincoln shows incredible restraint and subtlety while also remaining deeply engaging. It's a political-historical film that has an immense amount of dialogue filled with mid-19th century jargon and governmental language, yet it is never boring. That is a feat in itself. The acting, the cinematography, the dialogue, the soundtrack, the humor, the pathos--there aren't any false steps here. No lousy performances. No unnecessary scenes. The dark greys and natural wintery sunlight set the tone--this is a grey world, a bleak and mixed season for a nation at civil war. There are no black-and-white morals here, apart from one--slavery is morally wrong, and freedom is a right for every human. Daniel Day-Lewis is nearly flawless as Lincoln, like a resurrection of the man in tone and mannerisms. Tommy Lee Jones is also noteworthy in his portrayal of abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who gives some of the best tongue-lashings that Jones has ever bellowed in a film.

Lincoln is both one of the greatest presidents and likely to be one of my favorite films of 2012. I'll close with the closing words of Lincoln, from his inaugural address:
Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether". With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

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