****1/2 (out of 5)
November 9, 2012
Daniel Day-Lewis as ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Sally Field as MARY TODD LINCOLN
David Strathairn as WILLIAM SEWARD
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as ROBERT LINCOLN
James Spader as W.N. BILBO
Hal Holbrook as PRESTON BLAIR
Tommy Lee Jones as THADDEUS STEVENS
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
I was in the unique position to see Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” the day after the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. Earlier in that day, I suffered through the same thing most other people in this country (and many outside of it) did: the dichotomy of half our social media streams filled with celebration and the other half filled with disappointment and angst.
It was this pretext to this epic yet intimate film about the passage of the 13th Amendment to our Constitution that made me see it in a different light. Rather than being a movie about wartime, featuring massive battles and bloody action, “Lincoln” is an intricate look at the sausage making that is the American political system.
After last year’s “War Horse,” in which Spielberg told a sweeping journey of a single animal through the triumphs and hell of a war, I was expecting the same with this would-be costume drama. However, save for a somewhat soft and flat opening shot of a Civil War battle, there is no action. Instead, “Lincoln” shows with sometimes excruciating detail how Washington actually works.
Rather than being a biopic, this film takes place over the few short months at the end of the Civil War, during which President Abraham Lincoln uses political manipulation and compromise to change the Constitution so that slavery would be illegal in the United States. It’s not an action film. It’s not a war film. The majority of the film takes place in rooms with mustachioed men talking to other mustachioed men.
But it’s fascinating to watch.
It also blatantly dispels the misconception that politics is currently as divided and bitter as ever. The fact is that politics has always been like this. We see name-calling, yelling, ranting and general behavior that would result in a strong scolding were it to take place in a preschool. Yet, these are grown men barking at each other on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s a sepia-colored C-Span look at the legislative process as it has always been.
Spielberg makes some unsavory choices in the film to show the unsavory dealings of politics. Early in the film, he dispels the misconception that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the U.S., explaining in detail why that move may have not even been legal in the strictest sense. He lays out the case that the ultimate end goal was equality but it could not be achieved all at once.
But even more so, “Lincoln” shows the dirty underbelly of politicking, and it shamelessly shows a President who literally has been given an “honest” nickname not at all behaving in that manner. Politics is a dirty business, and it forces people to make compromises – sometimes wholly distasteful compromises to their very strongly held beliefs – in order for the means to justify the ends. And even then, the ends are decades down the road.
Don’t go into “Lincoln” expecting a nail-biter. And don’t go in expecting a thriller. Go in expecting a lot of long speeches and monologues delivered by some of the greatest actors of today in some of the greatest performances of the year. It’s a lot of talking, but it’s so sharply written that it is still digestible by the mainstream and kept me on the edge of my seat for most of its hefty two-and-a-half-hour running time.
With our nation at its perpetual crossroads, and right after an election that was very divisive and included plenty of races that disappointed many, “Lincoln” is a must-see. And if you have a job in Washington, or in a state or municipality, it’s a real must-see simply to remind ourselves as a nation that this is how sausage is made in politics. As ugly as it might be to watch happen, it’s a necessary evil to hopefully press ahead toward a greater good.