THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
One of the great things about movies is that, through re-creation, they can take historical events we've all learned about and show them to us in a new light. Steven Spielberg's Lincoln focuses on our beloved president's efforts to get the 13th Amendment passed. We all generally know about this from school, and many of us know more from reading for our own edification. The film goes a step further, though, giving you a feeling of what it might have been like to be there at the time, as history was about to be made. Even better, it does so in a way that is entertaining and surprisingly funny, instead of being a mere dramatization of facts.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln. The Civil War rages on, and the president, having been successfully re-elected, is attempting to emancipate the slaves and bring an end to the fighting that is dividing the country. He is met with opposition both from Democrats in the House of Representatives and from people on his own staff, who think he's jeopardizing his legacy by taking on such a contentious proposition. Realizing that it won't pass easily, Lincoln relies on a number of tactics to help his cause. He offers jobs and other perks to sway Democrats who are on the fence. He also has three negotiators (played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) approach opponents who might conceivably be turned around. Tommy Lee Jones plays the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who is a powerful ally in the fight to push the amendment through.
The beauty of Lincoln is how it dramatizes the machinations of Washington in that era. Some of the best scenes find Republicans and Democrats verbally sparring on the House floor, the insults flying at a rapid-fire pace. Tony Kushner's eloquent screenplay illustrates the argument on both sides. Those who don't want the amendment to go through are afraid it will lead to other things, like giving blacks the right to vote – a thought that terrifies them. Those who want slavery to end feel they are stopping a morally reprehensible practice that goes against the very foundation the United States was built upon. Some characters are interested in ending the war, but may not be willing to grant black citizens freedom to make it happen. You really walk away from the movie understanding how much animosity the issue stirred up. The scenes of Lincoln and his team trying to massage the vote are equally enlightening. We all know politics are like a game. Honest Abe, as shown here, knows how to play the game well, with a cunning ability to arrange the pieces on the board in the right manner for him to win. Lincoln drives home the idea that the odds were stacked against him, yet through perseverance, intelligence, and strategy, he was able to get a vital piece of legislation passed.
At the same time, the film doesn't make Lincoln a saint. While presenting him as a decent, honorable man, it also depicts some of his personal foibles. There's a heartbreaking scene in which wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) confronts Abe about having her sent to a mental institution after the death of one of their sons. She resents him for not accepting her grief; he responds by explaining why he couldn't access his own. His struggles to accept the desire of eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to enlist in a war he's trying to stop are equally gripping, showing that while he may have been a brilliant president, he struggled with the seemingly simpler challenge of being a dad. The familial moments bring a nice balance to the movie, indicating how doing important things in a presidential role may come with a cost on the homefront.
Daniel Day-Lewis is nothing short of remarkable in this role. His Abe Lincoln is down to earth, always ready to whip out a funny anecdote or, to make a point, a lecture. (A running joke is that some of his staff members seemingly get tired of the didactic spiels.) Made up to be a dead-ringer for Lincoln, Day-Lewis completely disappears into the role. I forgot I was watching him, so convincingly does he bring the man to life. Everyone in the supporting cast is also good, but special notice must be paid to Tommy Lee Jones, who is superb as the crotchety but sincere Stevens. His verbal jabs bring much of the humor to the picture.
Lincoln's big finale involves, of course, the vote on whether to pass the amendment. Having spent two hours observing the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to secure enough votes, the sequence is as exciting as any action scene in Skyfall, even though we all know the outcome. Spielberg understands how to heighten the drama, so that the stakes feel high despite their familiarity. In the end, this is what I responded to most about Lincoln. It allows you to feel like you're there for this fight, seeing it take place before your own eyes. Books can give you the facts and the meanings; a movie like this gives you the emotion. Lincoln could have been a dry, meandering historical drama, but under the watchful eye of its director, it becomes a lively, intelligent, and even fun examination of how one man inspired America to change forever.
( out of four)
Lincoln is rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 29 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!