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Lincoln

(2012)
Few figures have been mythologized in American culture as greatly as Abraham Lincoln (the Founding Fathers and Washington, perhaps, but thats about it), and it must be a temptation for filmmakers to play into the myth of the man rather than his history. Spielberg attempts to avoid some of this by only covering the last six months or so of Lincolns life. Yet the film starts off with Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) being regaled by troops hes visiting by having them recite one by one, piece by piece his Gettysburg address back to him. From there the film predominantly concerns itself with Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) trying to pass the 13th Amendment, which of course abolishes slavery. Theres also a fair amount of screen time given to Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and Lincolns relationship with his two boys, young Tad (Gulliver McGrath) and cusp-of-manhood Robert (Joseph GordonLevitt). Much of the wheeling and dealing to secure the vote to abolish slavery reminded me keenly of Sherman Edwards 1776, and was, here as there, very skillfully done. Seward hires a trio of negotiating arm-twisters led by W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) to seek out vulnerable Democrats and urge them to support the presidents legislat ion. There are also battles in the House itself, most notably between firebrand Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), which again recall 1776 vividly. His son Robert mostly rails against being kept from enlisting, and Mary Todd is a difficult figure here, as she was in real life; the death of a son hangs over her, and she and Abe have it out in a powerful scene later in the film. The period details are all perfect, or, to an unexpert eye at least feel perfect; a Washington D.C. full of grassland and muddy roads jars at first, but the crowded, dimly lit rooms, the bowlers and top hats, the exuberant hairstyles, all help to draw us in on a background level while some first class drama unfolds in front of us. The performances are all very strong; Spader tends to steal any scene hes in, Pace and Lee Jones spar magnificently, and Field, while saddled with the unsympathetic Mary Todd, is terrific. But naturally a film centering on Lincoln stands or falls on its portrayal of him, and Daniel Day-Lewis is superb as the sixteenth president. From Lincolns reedy voice to his penchant for storytelling to his humility and patience, Day-Lewis brings humanity and frailty to a figure we often see as larger-than-life; seeing his version of Lincoln, one begins to understand just how great a loss it was that he was taken from us so suddenly. I suspect some who have less of an appetite for political drama might find stretches of this film slow-moving, but I enjoyed luxuriating in a slew of fine performances, the slow tautening of tension (even though we know how the vote for the amendment turned out, it still generates a fair amount of anxiety onscreen), and a powerful examination of one of the greatest men ever to lead the country. Lincoln

is a little long in the tooth, clocking in at about two-and-a-half hours, but its certainly worth your while to investigate. November 4, 2013