Anthony's Film Review
A master director and an outstanding cast bring to life one of America's greatest Presidents...
Over the past few decades, there have been plenty of films made about U.S. presidents. Many of them are either about fictional American presidents, such as The American President in 1995, or documentaries related to actual U.S. presidents, such as Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004. Only a couple of Hollywood films feature actors portraying real-life U.S. presidents, including Nixon in 1995 with Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon, W. in 2008 featuring John Brolin as George W. Bush, and even the 2003 made-for-television movie The Reagans starring James Brolin as Ronald Reagan. It seems that presidential biopics tend to lean towards more recent U.S. presidents, not past presidents such as George Washington, the first President of the United States.
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States whom many historians and scholars consider to be the greatest U.S. president for his Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery and for his leadership during the divisive and bloody American Civil War, hasn't gotten the Hollywood treatment for years either. That is, until director Steven Spielberg took on the task. Who knows why a Lincoln movie was finally made after all this time? Maybe it's because 150 years have passed since the start of the American Civil War, or because in 2008 Barack Obama was the first African-American to be elected President of the United States, a far cry from the days when the notion of freedom for blacks could already spark violent clashes threatening to split the nation. Whatever the reason was, a Lincoln film has been made, and it's a very good one.
The first great thing about the film is its main star. Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Abraham Lincoln in a masterful performance, sinking into the character and literally becoming him. Portraits and other historical evidence of Lincoln's appearance have certainly helped bring him to stunning cinematic life. We may not know Lincoln's voice and speech patterns exactly, as audio recording technology was not widely available in the mid-19th century, but we can still believe that the Lincoln we're seeing on screen is a potentially accurate portrayal. Overall, I think this depiction of Abraham Lincoln by a skilled actor is the best we can possibly get.
There is much about Abraham Lincoln's life and career to put on screen, but even with a running time of 150 minutes, there is still too much to fit into a single movie. Hence, a Lincoln movie would have to focus on an important segment of his biography, and this 2012 movie wisely centers on efforts to add the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution that would abolish slavery once and for all. The story begins in January 1965, shortly after Lincoln was reelected President but when the Civil War still raged on. Also, the U.S. Senate approved a bill for the 13th Amendment, and only the U.S. House of Representatives is left to pass it before President Lincoln could sign it into law. But with an issue as divisive as slavery, there is risk that Lincoln's wish to fulfill his promise to end slavery might not come to fruition.
The film is primarily an engaging political drama in which Lincoln and his Republican party make efforts to convince enough U.S. congressmen to vote in favor of the 13th Amendment. There are scenes of private discussions among Lincoln and his staff, meetings with various characters outside the White House, fiery debates on the House of Representatives floor, and, most importantly, the day of the House vote on the 13th Amendment. In between are elements of a war drama, involving moments like telegram transmissions of critical military developments and negotiations between the Union army in the North and the Confederate army in the South. Then there are bits of Lincoln's private life with his family, including his wife Mary Todd Lincoln.
With such a story, the film excels not just on the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, but also the supporting cast. David Strathairn is outstanding as Secretary of State William Seward, who supports Lincoln but is not afraid to question the decision to have the 13th Amendment and risk a prolonged Civil War, versus peace negotiations to end the Civil War even if that won't end slavery. Tommy Lee Jones is memorable as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who seems ambivalent with supporting the 13th Amendment because of what others might think of him. Then there is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the elder son Robert Lincoln, who feels compelled to fight for the Union army, and Sally Field as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who is emotional about possibly losing Robert in war just as a young Lincoln son had died of illness years earlier.
So as you can see, the title may suggest that the film is all about Lincoln, but in fact, it also presents the historical environment he lived in. That's not to say the character of Lincoln is pushed to the backburner. If anything, all of the moments involving other characters show the political hurdles that Lincoln had to face, which further bring out this President's humanity and determination to end slavery. Really, the film is about a character as well as his setting, in the context of an interesting story. Thanks to Steven Spielberg's direction, the elements of plot, character, and setting all work well together.
The night I went into the theater to watch Lincoln, I had expected to be whisked back in time to a turbulent era and leave the theater with a greater sense of what America back then had to overcome to get to where it is now. I was definitely not disappointed, so I can certainly proclaim that this movie is great for historical film fans. Of course, even without too much of an interest in American history, cinephiles will certainly love the acting, the costumes and makeup, the story, and the overall feel of the movie. Whatever kind of film lover one is, Lincoln has something for just about everyone. This is a fine cinematic tribute to a United States President who no doubt deserves to be celebrated for his deeds.
For more information about Lincoln, visit the Internet Movie Database.