Monday, 11 February 2013

"Lincoln", a film review.

I just saw Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln", and it was a great flick.

Now, let me say, I'm into history and I'm into historical movies.  The period of the US Civil War is an era in which I'm particularly interested.  Nevertheless, even given all this, in my opinion, "Lincoln" was particularly good.

It's a verbose movie.  Most of the "action" of the film consists of people sitting around talking; talking in offices, sitting rooms, bedrooms, hospital wards, and the US House of Representatives.  The talk, however, isn't idle chatter.  The talk is the crisp interplay of serious ideas, ideas about peace, justice, government, and life.  (And the scenes in the House of Representatives are well-and-truly in the same league as the parliamentary scenes in "Amazing Grace".)

The film is set in 1865, in the last few months both of the US Civil War and of the life of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States.  Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) was engaged in negotiations both over ending the long war, and over an consitutional amendment giving final abolition to slavery.  Lincoln was also coping with the frail emotional state (the result of the death of their middle son William) of his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Sally Field).

In balancing the three needs to end the war quickly, to abolish slavery permanently, and to pay attention to the needs of his wife and his two surviving sons, Spielberg's/Day-Lewis's Lincoln is a study of a good individual torn between three conflicting (but all good) goals.

Lincoln's tension is illustrated by the conflicting influences brought to bear on him by two of his colleagues.  On the one hand is his suave and somewhat cynical Secretary of State William Seward (played by David Strathairn), Lincoln's eminence grise and an expert practitioner of realpolitik, for whom a speedy end to the war was a higher priority than a permanent end to slavery.  On the other hand is the idealistic Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones), who was seeking a permanent end to slavery.  Lincoln, Seward, and Stevens forged a coalition that led to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, abolishing slavery.

In the process, political wheeling and dealing needed to take place, and the misadventures of the trio of political operatives engaged by Seward to wheel the deals provide a few moments of comic relief  in this serious film.  In many ways, they function as a cross between the Drunken Porter in Macbeth and Moe, Larry, and Curly.

For those unfamiliar with American history, there is a need to know that the two major parties shifted their ideological position in the century-and-a-half between Lincoln's day and ours.  In Lincoln's day, in contrast to ours, the Republicans were the progressives while the Democrats were the reactionaries.

The character of Lincoln remained the moral centre of the film.  Juggling the demands of making peace, freeing the slaves, and caring for his family, the strong sense of Lincoln's own humanity shines through (even in his lengthy and folksy stories - which always had a relevant point - and which always raised the ethical stakes in the conversation).  This humanity was seen in his determination to pardon a teenage soldier sentenced to death, even when his staffers were advising him against it.

This film is worth seeing about two or three times at least to get a good idea of the ethical struggle that was going on both among Lincoln's colleagues and within Lincoln's mind.

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.