Lincoln Review: One of the Best Portrayals of an American President in the History of Cinema

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Steven Spielberg’s steady hand guides one of the most celebrated presidents of all time to a new sort of relevance in this unforgettable biopic.

The film opens after Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) has issued the Emancipation Proclamation and won reelection. We are introduced to the 16th president as he is seeing some Union soldiers, who recite the words of the Gettysburg Address back to its author. The camera shies away from Lincoln, using shadows and silhouette shots to cover his face while he is among his peers. He feels like a god here more than a president.

That is, until we meet his wife (Sally Field) and sons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Gulliver McGrath). The scenes Lincoln shares with them are most real and human moments in the movie.

Spielberg escapes the trappings of your typical biopic by showing only four months of his presidency. Lincoln is mainly focused on the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. The politics behind the event aren’t watered down and there are a lot of lengthy scenes explaining how the system works.

That is actually one of the most startling aspects of this movie, how little things have changed in our political system between 1863 and 2012. It feels appropriate that this film hit theaters just a few weeks after the political parties laid it all on the table to win the election. Lincoln features many of the same hot-head arguments you may have watched on MSNBC or FOX News.

Lincoln himself is a much quieter force than most other politicians in the movie. You know you have a great actor or actress on your hands when you instantly forget you are watching a performance. It happened last year with Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. It happens this year with Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln. He has a calm yet mighty presence on the screen. Lincoln is a testament to the amount of talent he truly has, as this performance is the white to the black that was Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood.

But hopefully it will not overshadow Tommy Lee Jones’ blunt yet sophisticated portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens, a Republican Congressional leader with a lot of pull in the House of Representatives. Jones gives the film many of its comedic moments while still establishing a sense of urgency for this bill to pass.

The rest of the cast does a wonderful job as well. Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln has plenty of great moments. Sadly I don’t think she had enough screen time to earn much recognition. The same goes for Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Other smaller roles that went to Lee Pace, James Spader, Adam Driver and Tim Blake Nelson are memorable despite being little more than vignettes in a much larger story.

And Lincoln is a huge film. Lasting two and a half hours, it moves along at a brisk pace, a true achievement for Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner since most of the movie is old guys talking politics.

Lincoln is never boring without going into flashy Hollywood moments. In a way, this is one of Spielberg’s least Hollywood-y films, far superior to the over-the-top feel good nature of last year’s War Horse. Featuring some of the best performances of the year and a stunning portrayal of a man that too many know as the guy on the five dollar bill, this is one of the best films of the year. A firm reassertion that Spielberg has still got it. Grade: A


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