Steven Spielberg's 'Lincoln' celebrates the glorious mess that is democracy

Dead (ringer) prez: Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln - COURTESY PHOTO
Courtesy photo
Dead (ringer) prez: Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln

Don't let the battle scenes in the trailers fool you: Lincoln is less about rifles and cannons and more about dandified lawyers and crotchety politicians in powdered wigs pounding the desk, adjusting their waistcoats, and hurling old-timey insults at one another. In other words, director Steven Spielberg is revisiting his Amistad days, only with a lot less bluster and sanctimony.

Spielberg's film is triumphant in its casting. Putting aside the remarkable physical likeness, Lewis's portrait of Lincoln is both modestly grounded and masterfully complex. To some, he is a gentle and affable man who is given to homespun anecdotes that pack a metaphorical punch. To others, he is a shrewd and seasoned lawyer who knows how to wield the power of his personality and office. Lewis shows that he needs neither bluster nor gimmicks (as he is sometimes given to indulge in) to command the screen.

And yet, despite this, Lincoln the film remains an emotionally detached experience. The movie doesn't really give us any insight into who the president was as a man, but it does give us a sense of what it might have been like to be around him. Perhaps sensing this, Spielberg insists on inserting some family drama, with Abe's son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) insisting that he be permitted to join the war, and Sally Field's Mary Todd fretting and frothing that she won't lose another child. It's hokey, distracting, and dramatically ineffectual stuff that, frankly, unnecessarily cheapens Field's performance and character.

In the end, Lincoln demonstrates that history is made by ordinary people, and true leadership is the ability to overcome the drama of the moment in order to fulfill the wisdom of time. Spielberg's film illustrates how both Abraham Lincoln and members of Congress overcame the former in service of the latter. It is a lesson in duty and compromise that both the American electorate and its elected representatives would do well to learn.


★★★★ ½ (out of 5 stars)

Dir. Steven Spielberg; writ. Tony Kushner, Doris Kearns Goodwin; feat. Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn. (PG-13)

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