Friday, November 23, 2012

Lincoln, Lincoln, I’ve Been Thinkin’: Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

Lincoln brings to life our sixteenth president with an uncanny naturalism that is almost disconcerting. There’s no pedestal here. Abe Lincoln isn’t presented as saintly. He’s portrayed as a savvy politician and competent leader who recognized when the time was right for the passage of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery. Lincoln is rated Rated PG-13 for “an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language.” But more to the point, this film is more about persuasion and politics in all its stubbornness, intractability, and compromise than it is about action. This is a grown-up film, perfect for parents and your over-thirteens to enjoy and discuss.

Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln
If you’re a fan of Daniel Day-Lewis, you won’t be surprised to hear his performance as Lincoln is nothing short of extraordinary. In his entire career, I don’t think Day-Lewis has every given a flabby or lazy performance; even in bad films, he’s often a ray of light. This Lincoln is a compelling tale, well told by Spielberg, the director with the biggest box of crayons in Hollywood. You’d expect the art direction to be stupendous and it is, but more than that: the film is filled with knowing period details in performance and dialogue that anchor the story in the 19th century yet shatter the boundaries of time and space. Spielberg and his actors find the universal clarity of each character’s goals and needs.

Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens
The film focuses on the waning days of the Civil War. The conflict was all but over, and Lincoln was confronted with the idea that his Emancipation Proclamation could be legally challenged and overturned by a reunited United States. There’s a feeling of “now or never” in the quest to get the 13th Amendment passed before the south rejoined the union. The political machinations are compelling and we see Lincoln as affable story-teller; but we also see moments when he sits diplomatically silent, a knowing politician and lawyer with a keen knack for pragmatism and timing. There are nearly too many outstanding supporting performances to mention, including Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as William Seward, Bruce McGill as Edwin Stanton and James Spader as W. N. Bilbo.

Another President, Woodrow Wilson famously called the film The Birth of a Nation “like writing history with lightening.” There isn’t lightening here; just blood and guts. It’s very human and approachable. Lincoln has a sense of naturalness and realness that invites viewers to step into the frame, to shake hands with Lincoln himself. He’s the smartest man in the room with a limitless ability to carry the burdens of many without taking his eye off vital issues of the day.

I was left wanting more of Day-Lewis and Lincoln. So why stop with this film? The great thing about Lincoln is that it can open up a lively discussion with your kids about similarities to the present day's  political victories, defeats, and deadlocks. To begin with, you and your family can take a deeper look into the production of the film with a free, interactive iPad book, Lincoln: A Steven Spielberg Film - Discover the Story. Then peruse these essential resources on the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln:

All photos ©Disney. Not for reuse.

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