Movie Review - Lincoln

I had the same problem with this film that I had with Gus Van Sant's Milk. Despite having the title of a great political figure, the movie isn't really about that political figure in terms of creating a deep or all that insightful biography. Milk (2008) was less about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician. It was more about the gay rights movement in California in the 1970s. Lincoln is less about Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. It is instead more about the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the political issue of abolition at the tail-end of the American Civil War.

At least with Milk, the issue of gay rights is still a struggle, even in 2012, despite all the advancements. The issue of abolition or ending slavery is very much settled. I suppose that people can look at the behavior of the members of Congress and the members of the Democrat and Republican Parties back then and marvel at the similarities and the eventual way things came together. Some can even wish a modern-day application of past strategies. I'm not one of them.

The Congressional debates depicted here are at times entertaining. The tactics that the Republicans employ to buy votes are interesting and provide a lot of the movie's humor, but they go on for far too long and get to be needless. A lot of the debating is mere grand-standing and show-boating. It becomes devoid of drama, not simply because the outcome is obvious but because a lot of the personal connection isn't there or is taken out.

The film tries to add personal connection, regarding Lincoln's son, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Lincoln's son wants to enlist in the army and enter the war. If Lincoln can pass the Amendment, it would essentially make the war pointless. Being that Lincoln's wife, played by Sally Field, doesn't want her son to go to war, she pressures Lincoln to get the Amendment passed. This adds a personal connection and it gives the movie stakes for Lincoln.

Director Steven Spielberg opens the film with the brutality of the Civil War to remind us that this horrible war is happening and men are dying in it. Yet, there is something that Spielberg leaves out, probably intentionally, but I don't think he should have because it loses an even more important personal connection and stakes that the film needed.

It's not until the final twenty minutes that black people are introduced. They're not even introduced but simply brought into Congress. Black people are essentially the elephant that's in the room but actually that's not in the room. All these white men talk about black people but we never see any black people, so we never get what these white men are fighting for.

Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, has a personal connection to black people that is not revealed until the very end. Yes, slavery is bad, and Stevens doesn't need the personal connection to oppose slavery but having his connection integrated more into the plot would have helped the film.

Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay, which very much feels like a stage play. So did Angels in America, but not to the degree of this one. Despite that, Kushner comes up with some great lines, specifically for the character of Lincoln. My favorite is the line about a compass and true north. Spielberg peppers up Kushner's script with some cinematic tricks. There is a great wipe where Spielberg goes from a sorrowful Sally Field to a smiling Sally Field that perfectly shows how the President and his wife dealt with things privately as opposed to publicly.

The production design is impeccable. The period detail is very well done in the re-creation of Washington, DC in 1865. The performances are great. Daniel Day-Lewis is the obvious towering presence who literally towers over all the other actors but even sitting in a corner is still a force to be reckoned with. There is a really great moment where Lincoln potentially lies, but Tommy Lee Jones just eats up the dialogue and language here. I wouldn't mind if he got an Oscar nomination for this.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some images of carnage and brief strong language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 29 mins.


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