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“Lincoln” is more BBC drama than American block­buster. It is two-and-a-half hours long and stars a cast of aging char­acter actors. It relies not on action sequences and beau­tiful faces but on complex con­ver­sa­tions about law and policy to move the plot. And it humanizes, however respect­fully, an American demigod.

Daniel Day-Lewis is the movie’s biggest name, and he does not dis­ap­point. His Lincoln is both pow­erful and vul­nerable, affable and exhausted to the point of letting his fury flash out — someone to be both loved and feared. The movie begins in the fourth year of the Civil War, with the Con­fed­erate states ready to sur­render and Lincoln des­per­ately trying to push the Anti-Slavery Amendment through Con­gress.

Lincoln is in a tenuous position: the Eman­ci­pation Procla­mation, he tells his cabinet, was nec­essary but pos­sibly illegal, and he has a burning need to make his hatred for slavery con­sti­tu­tional. Lacking the nec­essary majority, he must bribe and bully his Demo­c­ratic oppo­nents in Con­gress for votes, even if it means pro­longing the war so that he can con­tinue to use it as a political weapon in Wash­ington.

The radical Repub­lican Thaddeus Stephens, played by an excellent Tommy Lee Jones, believes that Lincoln’s ends justify any means, and sums up the bill as “passed by cor­ruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” I suspect Spielberg comes to the same con­clusion, but I’m not sure he requires his audience to agree. When Lincoln shouts, “I am the pres­ident of the United States, clothed in immense power, and you will get me those votes!”, accu­sa­tions earlier in the movie of “tyranny” come to mind. Given that Day-Lewis’ Lincoln essen­tially lies to Con­gress to get those votes, I had to agree with the Con­fed­erate envoy who, when the pres­ident began lec­turing him on democracy, begs Lincoln to “spare us your pieties.”

There is no question, however, that Day-Lewis will be in the running for an Oscar with his bril­liant per­for­mance. Sally Field and David Straithairn are great foils as the president’s anxious wife and Sec­retary of State, and Joseph Gordon Levitt has a solid — but sur­pris­ingly sec­ondary and unmacho — role as young Robert Lincoln. The script is clever and intriguing; the camera work is superb.

The film’s length allows for deep char­acter devel­opment, but I do wish Spielberg ended it a few minutes earlier. He seems unsure of how to handle Lincoln’s assas­si­nation, and the result is clunky and slips into the sen­ti­men­tality he had avoided up to then. Lincoln standing alone in his room, lis­tening, would have been such a better closing image than Lincoln, haloed in a giant candle flame, with the Get­tysburg Address playing in the back­ground. Sure, Lincoln belongs to history now, but I could have done without one of his friends solemnly stating it at the president’s death bed.

The ending, however, does not ruin the movie. It is a fas­ci­nating, intel­ligent, mas­ter­fully acted, and sur­pris­ingly bal­anced film, and cer­tainly deserves to score big come Oscar season.

 

 

                                                  ptimmis@hillsdale.edu