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Film Review: Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln"

Nov 29, 2017
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When I first read years ago that famed director Steven Spielberg was undertaking a project to make a movie about Abraham Lincoln, our greatest President Of The United States, I was excited as well as apprehensive.  To be sure, Mr. Spielberg has directed some of the most beloved films ever made, including “Jaws,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Schindler’s List.”  He’s also given us “Hook” and “Indiana Jones and The Crystal Skull,” proof that even a famous director comes up with clunkers.  Then I happened to read that Mr. Spielberg had purchased the filming rights to author Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln.”  It’s a good book, but it’s also the “Lincoln-Book-Which-Will-Not-Die” and, in my opinion, undeserving of the excessive hype surrounding it since it was published in 2005.  There are other Lincoln books which are significantly better, such as “Lincoln” by the late historian David Herbert Donald.

Then Mr. Spielberg’s interest in “Lincoln” seemed to fall by the wayside as he brought us the aforementioned 4th Indiana Jones movie, “The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse.”  In fact, Spielberg’s original choice to portray Lincoln, esteemed actor Liam Neeson, dropped out of the project claiming that he was  too “old” to effectively play him.

But then the project gathered momentum as it was announced that our greatest living actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, had been cast as Mr. Lincoln.  Sally Field as Mary Lincoln and  Tommy Lee Jones as Representative Thaddeus Stevens also joined the cast.  Between these three actors, they have earned five Academy Awards ® for their craft. Rounding out this exceptional cast is David Strathairn as Secretary of State William H. Seward, Hal Holbrook as Lincoln adviser Preston Blair, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son Robert.

Mr. Spielberg was wise not to try to create a traditional biopic of Abraham Lincoln.  To do justice to such an extraordinary life as Lincoln’s would be nearly impossible in a film of only 2-3 hours in length.  Instead, he chose to focus on Lincoln’s fight for passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which forever banned institutionalized slavery in the United States.  It was a wise decision.  It permitted tight focus on one of the most dramatic months in U.S. history, when Congress was trying to decide if the slaves would be truly “forever free.”

The acting.  Oh my, the acting.  This is one of the finest overall acting performances by a movie cast in decades.  It almost goes without saying that Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Abraham Lincoln can immediately be declared the greatest depiction of Lincoln in cinematic history. Mr. Day-Lewis “Lincoln” is the closest we will ever come to the real Lincoln.  We can’t possibly know how Abraham Lincoln sounded, but all accounts tell us his voice was pitched high and thin.  To prepare his “voice” for Lincoln, Day-Lewis listened to old recordings of farmers from the regions of Kentucky and Indiana where Lincoln lived.  The resulting voice/accent which Day-Lewis uses might be startling to many audience members, but it is as accurate as it can possibly be.

Daniel Day-Lewis took an entire year to prepare for this part.  He is notoriously choosy about the roles he takes, and this is only his fifth movie of the past fifteen years.  Day-Lewis who is of course British, traveled to Lincoln’s town of Springfield, IL to tour the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Lincoln home, and spent hours talking with Lincoln scholars in his attempt to get to “know” the President.  He studied books about Lincoln’s gait, how he held his head and had stooped shoulders.  The result is a truly astonishing  portrayal of Mr. Lincoln.  So exceptional that I felt as if I was in the presence of greatness, not just seeing “Lincoln” as he most likely was, but seeing what is probably the greatest performance of this year.  In fact, it might be judged in the future as one of the most skillful performances ever seen on film.  If Mr. Day-Lewis does not win his third Academy Award ® as Best Actor for this brilliant and stunning performance, it will be a travesty.

Ms. Sally Field is outstanding in her role as the haunted Mary Lincoln.  She is in her own right one of the best actors of her generation, having also won two Best Acting Oscars ® for roles in “Norma Rae” and “Places In The Heart.”  Quite simply, this is Ms. Field’s best role and work in decades. Her portrayal of Mary Lincoln is the right mix of grief, frustration, and anger at having lost two children already, including Mary and Abraham’s seemingly favorite, Willie, who died of typhus in 1862.  The scene where “Mary” berates “Lincoln” for not showing (in her opinion) enough grief for their son is spectacular.  Ms. Field more than holds her own against Mr. Day-Lewis.  Don’t be surprised if she is nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Tommy Lee Jones as Representative Thaddeus Stevens, who wanted to have complete equality, not only freedom, for slaves, is also outstanding.  Stevens was himself curmudgeonly as Mr. Jones seems to be in most of his roles, but Jones’ performance is a wonderful portrayal of a man who deeply cared about ALL people, especially the ones who were held in slavery.  In fact, a scene toward the end of the movie is highly moving in which Jones conveys the emotions of a man who has just won a long and bitter struggle. I would expect Mr. Jones will achieve his own Oscar ® nomination for his performance.

David Strathairn, always so good, is an excellent Secretary of State “William Henry Seward.”  He depicts Seward as a somewhat “stuffy” man of refined tastes, who is such a loyal aide to Abraham Lincoln that he feels free to argue and at times yell at the President.  It is also an accurate to life portrayal.

Spielberg chose the outstanding play and screenwriter Tony Kushner to bring the story to life.  The script is a marvel, with effective dialog and a wonderful historical accuracy.  Spielberg’s cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has brought a perfect look and feel to the film.  The colors and lighting are soft which add to the overall effect of the solemn nature of the film.  And Spielberg’s directing might be his finest work since “Schindler’s List”.  It is a subdued, authentic, and restrained direction which is thankfully lacking (mostly) the sentimentality that sometimes appears in his films.

Some parents have asked me in person and via email if this film is age appropriate for children who are 11 or 12 years old.  The film is rated PG-13 for language, a quick scene of brutal hand-to-hand combat, and the gore of dead bodies and amputated limbs.  “Lincoln” himself uses a scatological term in a joke he tells, but the historic Lincoln didn’t shy away from language and off-color stories.  The language is not gratuitous nor excessive, and honestly it’s probably nothing that children that age haven’t already heard on the school bus or playground.  If your child (or children) loves Abraham Lincoln, as so many seem to do, don’t hesitate to take them to see this movie.

The performances by the actors and director, the screenplay, and the cinematography all combine to make “Lincoln” a film of extraordinary achievement.  I believe it will withstand the test of time and will be deemed one of Spielberg’s greatest films, if not his career masterpiece.  It is a tour de force of drama, emotion, some humor, and enthralling acting.  At the end of the showing, most of the audience applauded and more than a few were in tears.

If I had to rate this film in only one word, that word would be: “Perfection”.   Thank you, Steven Spielberg, cast and crew, for bringing Abraham Lincoln to life.

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